Ada Lovelace – Woman Crush Wednesday!

As Lady Buzzkill and I can tell you, it’s tough to be born to wealth and privilege. The constant socializing, serving on the boards of charities and non-profits, being invited to an endless number of weddings and events by everybody who’s anybody, and on and on. In the face of these massive temptations to live the easy life of privilege, it takes a stainless steel backbone and a stupendous sense of civic responsibility to do the kind of humanitarian work we do here at the Buzzkill Institute.

Our Woman Crush Wednesday this week overcame the same sorts of pressures to do important work in the early 19th century. Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, who lived a short life from 1815 to 1852, is usually considered the first computer programmer, having written what some people think was the first algorithm for a computer, or at least the concept of a “computer.” The “computer” itself was Charles Babbage’s famous Analytical Machine from 1837, which was never fully built, but which Babbage had conceived more or less fully, and which became well-known in scientific circles then. And perhaps Ada Lovelace’s real genius was to see that Babbage’s machine (and, theoretically, future machines like it) could be used to do highly sophisticated mathematical and analytical work, and not just be over-sized calculators.

But if that was the full story, there wouldn’t be much reason to devote a Woman Crush Wednesday episode to Ada Lovelace. We need more complication, a little drama, and a little interpretive controversy here at the Buzzkill Institute, for us to be able to show you the dangers of hero-worship in history and to strip away many of the over-simplifications that have led to the Mount Rushmore-ization of “the greatest…” or “the first…” people in various walks of life fields.

She was born Augusta Ada Byron in 1815, the daughter of the poet, Lord Byron and his wife, Lady Wentworth. Her famous father left them a month or so after she was born, to go a-wandering and adventuring on the European Continent. He died eight years later of disease, in 1824, while participating in the Greek War of Independence. And despite having lots of illnesses during her childhood, Ada showed immense intellectual ability and was tutored by some of the most able teachers of her day. These included William, the 8th Baron King (who Ada would marry in 1835, and who would become the 1st Earl of Lovelace in 1838, making her the Countess of Lovelace) and Mary Somerville (sometimes called the Queen of Science in the 19th Century). Through these connections, she often met leading intellectuals of the day, including Charles Dickens, Michael Faraday, and Charles Babbage.

And it’s Babbage and his Analytical Machine to whom Ada Lovelace’s name has been inextricably linked. The key work she did was translate an article by the Italian mathematician, Luigi Menabrea, about the Analytical Engine that Babbage had envisioned. In 1843 she also attached a series of notes to her translation, and it’s those notes that are the basis for her subsequently being called the first computer programmer. In those notes, she presented a method for a very complicated calculation sequence related to Menabrea’s article.

I can’t understand or explain this sequence, but the mathematicians here at the Buzzkill Institute assure me it’s genuine, solid, and well known. In her 1843 Notes, she also made two further arguments about Babbage’s innovation. The first was that artificial intelligence (of the type that could create original thoughts) was not possible from Babbage’s Analytical Engine. The second, however, was the Analytical Engine might be used for things other than strict numeric calculation. It couldn’t express artificial intelligence, but the Analytical Engine might, she wrote:

…act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine…Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.

It seems that it’s this insight that separates Lovelace from from other early computing pioneers. I think the best way to explain this idea is to read a long quote from Doron Swade, an expert on Babbage and Lovelace’s work, and a historian of computing. Swade argues…

Ada saw something that Babbage in some sense failed to see. In Babbage’s world his engines were bound by number. He saw that the machines could do algebra in the narrow sense that they could manipulate plus and minus signs. But all his calculating engines, his Difference Engine and his Analytical Engine, which is the programmable general-purpose machine, were all bound by number: they manipulated number as a manifestation of quantity, as a measure of quantity. What Lovelace saw…was that number could represent entities other than quantity. So once you had a machine for manipulating numbers, if those numbers represented other things, letters, musical notes, then the machine could manipulate symbols of which number was one instance, according to rules. It is this fundamental transition from a machine which is a number cruncher to a machine for manipulating symbols according to rules that is the fundamental transition from calculation to computation—to general-purpose computation—and looking back from the present high ground of modern computing, if we are looking and sifting history for that transition, then that transition was made explicitly by Ada in that 1843 paper.

Both quoted in John Fuegi and Jo Francis, “Lovelace & Babbage and the creation of the 1843 ‘notes’,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing ( Volume: 25, Issue: 4, Oct.-Dec. 2003 ), p. 24.

That’s the key to the genius of her discovery. This idea that, if you didn’t think of numbers as limited by being strictly “numbers,” lots of broader things were possible (short of actually creating artificial intelligence).

I used that Professor Swade quote specifically because it helps me show that this story is much more complicated than the summary version of Ada Lovelace having “written the first computer program,” or being “the first computer programmer.” In that quote, Dr. Swade explains Lovelace’s major contribution in the history of computing. But Swade is also one of several serious scholars who have critiqued the sound-byte over-simplification of Lovelace’s “first computer programmer” achievement.

Those scholars argue that people are wrong to say that Lovelace’s calculations published in her 1843 paper comprised the first real computer program, and, in fact, that those calculations were created originally by her. Charles Babbage wrote those calculations first, in some cases had come up with them in the late 1830s, before Lovelace began studying this type of mathematics. And, in fact, Babbage helped guide Lovelace through those calculations, although she later discovered an important error in one them, which may have been the first computer “bug.” Which she fixed.

Although the original authorship of the calculations may be disputed among scholars for a very long time, what modern experts all seem to agree on is what Professor Swade said in that quote I just read out. Essentially, she was able to see that the Analytical Engine could go beyond just calculating numbers, which, as far as we know, is what Babbage’s conceptions were limited to. The Analytical Engine could work with any set of regular symbols that followed logical rules. Musical notes, patterns for creating decorative cloth, dates on a calendar, measurements of time, and on and on and on.

And “on and on and on” is exactly what happened. Of course computers have handled number crunching to an extensive and impressive degree. But if that’s all they did, I doubt very much that we’d now be living in what we call a “computer age.” And it appears that, even if it’s not certain that Ada Lovelace “wrote” the first computer program, and can’t be called the first computer programmer, it’s absolutely clear to me that, she was the first computer visionary. And that’s proved to be far more important.

Ada Lovelace Day

Fortunately, Ada Lovelace’s contribution to science and computing has been celebrated quite a lot recently. The 9th of October 2018 is Ada Lovelace Day. It’s going to be the 10th annual international celebration of her work, as well as a showcase for women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). The goal for Ada Lovelace Day has been to “create new role models who will encourage more girls into STEM careers and support women already working in STEM.”

If you have the good taste and decency to live near London, you can go to the Ada Lovelace Day Live “science cabaret” and total geek fest on October 9th. It’s at London’s Institution of Engineering and Technology, and all the info can be found at

When you’re there, of course, make sure to tell them Professor Buzzkill sent you!

Talk to you next week.


Some Scholarly Citations:

Bruce Collier, The Little Engines that Could’ve: The Calculating Machines of Charles Babbage, PhD Thesis, Harvard University, 1970.

Allan Bromley, “Difference and Analytical Engines,” In Aspray, William. Computing Before Computers. Ames: Iowa State University Press. pp. 59–98. 1990. p. 89.

Fuegi, J; Francis, J (October–December 2003), “Lovelace & Babbage and the creation of the 1843 ‘notes'”, Annals of the History of Computing, IEEE, 25 (4): 16–26.

Hammerman, Robin; Russell, Andrew L. (2015), Ada’s Legacy: Cultures of Computing from the Victorian to the Digital Age, Association for Computing Machinery and Morgan & Claypool,

Hammerman, Robin; Russell, Andrew L. (2015), Ada’s Legacy: Cultures of Computing from the Victorian to the Digital Age, Association for Computing Machinery and Morgan & Claypool,

Kim, Eugene; Toole, Betty Alexandra (1999). “Ada and the First Computer”. Scientific American. 280 (5): 76–81.

Buzzkill Bookshelf:

Sydney Padua, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer.

Meet Victorian London’s most dynamic duo: Charles Babbage, the unrealized inventor of the computer, and his accomplice, Ada, Countess of Lovelace, the peculiar proto-programmer and daughter of Lord Byron. When Lovelace translated a description of Babbage’s plans for an enormous mechanical calculating machine in 1842, she added annotations three times longer than the original work. Her footnotes contained the first appearance of the general computing theory, a hundred years before an actual computer was built. Sadly, Lovelace died of cancer a decade after publishing the paper, and Babbage never built any of his machines.

But do not despair! The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage presents a rollicking alternate reality in which Lovelace and Babbage do build the Difference Engine and then use it to build runaway economic models, battle the scourge of spelling errors, explore the wilder realms of mathematics, and, of course, fight crime—for the sake of both London and science. Complete with extensive footnotes that rival those penned by Lovelace herself, historical curiosities, and never-before-seen diagrams of Babbage’s mechanical, steam-powered computer, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is wonderfully whimsical, utterly unusual, and, above all, entirely irresistible.

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