TechTV | Ada Lovelace, Countess of Controversy
Was a Victorian lady, the daughter of poet Lord Byron, really the world’s first computer programmer?
By Maria Godoy, TechTV News
Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, is something of a giant in the world of technology. The daughter of celebrated poet Lord Byron, Lovelace was a Victorian society hostess, the mother of three, and a mathematician widely credited as being the world’s first computer programmer.
But an article in the latest issue of the “New Yorker” takes issue with Ada’s contributions to computing. Written by journalist Jim Holt, the “New Yorker” piece claims that Ada had very little input in devising the punch-card system of programming for the Analytical Engine, inventor Charles Babbage’s proto-computer, an 1840s collaboration that is Ada’s strongest claim to fame.
Holt attempts to debunk the image of Ada as a prophet of technology, using author Benjamin Woolley’s new book, “The Bride of Science: Romance, Reason, and Byron’s Daughter” — which was recently released in a US hardback edition — as the basis for his reassessment of the woman known as the 19th century’s “enchantress of numbers.”
Holt’s article argues that Ada, “had a shaky command of elementary algebra,” failed to grasp trigonometry, and was at a loss when it came to calculus. According to both Holt and Woolley, Ada was a “hysteria-prone and often opium-addled” compulsive gambler, a “lusty coquette,” and an unbalanced eccentric who “got swept up in the craze for mesmerism and phrenology.”
“If Ada were alive today she could sue the New Yorker and Mr. Holt for libel,” says Betty Toole, a science historian who spent more than eight years holed up in British libraries and archives researching Ada’s letters, which she published in “Ada: The Enchantress of Numbers.”
Holt and Woolley did not respond to TechTV’s requests for comment.
In the notes, which ended up being three times longer than the original Menabrea paper, Ada outlined how the Analytical Engine might have worked had it ever been built. She explained how the Bernoulli numbers, a complex numerical system first described by 18th century Swiss mathematician Jakob Bernoulli, might be broken down into simple formulas that could be coded as instructions for the machine. Perhaps more importantly, her poetic prowess endowed Babbage’s dry technical details with grandeur. The Analytical Engine, she wrote, “weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.” She also envisioned that, given the right algorithms, the machine might be able to compose music and graphics.
However, scholars disagree on the extent to which the notes represent Ada’s original thoughts.
“It is doubtful whether Ada herself “originated” any of the ideas contained in her notes, except perhaps some of the more exuberantly speculative ones,” Holt argues. He says Babbage supplied most of the tables and indexes for the notes, and, because of her poor math skills, ended up finishing most of the equations for her. (Babbage claimed as much in an autobiography written 20 years after Ada’s death.)
So why did Babbage let her take the credit in the first place? According to Woolley, Babbage was hoping that Ada’s celebrity status would win him funding.
“It would be like nominating Lisa Marie Presley to annotate a study of quantum computation,” Woolley writes.
But according to Toole, this characterization is “pure hogwash.” Toole says Babbage’s correspondence with Ada reveals that he gave her very little help. In fact, Toole argues, it was Ada who suggested programming the Bernoulli numbers — a claim Holt and Woolley both support — and using indexes, much like those used in modern computers.
Babbage scholar Allan Bromley, of the University of Sydney, is more circumspect in his assessment of Ada’s role. Bromley was too ill to participate in an interview with TechTV, but in 1999 he told Salon, “All of her programs cited in her notes had been prepared by Babbage three to seven years earlier.”
Paul Ceruzzi, a computer historian with the National Air and Space Museum, is also reluctant to give Ada the title of “first computer programmer,” but notes that her contributions were nonetheless invaluable to the field.
“She had a better sense than Babbage did of the need to keep programming separate from the machine,” Ceruzzi told TechTV. This, he says, was a “tremendous insight” that even many of the most brilliant minds in computer science failed to see as late as the 1950s.
Moreover, he notes, while Babbage was “a failure at articulating his vision,” Ada’s flair for words helped sell the exotic notion of a computer to a skeptical world.
“I think she really deserves a place in computing history,” Ceruzzi says.
The real problem with Ada, Ceruzzi and Toole both suggest, may lie in our culture’s need to take a complex personality from the 19th century and whittle her down into an archetypal icon for the technology age.
“If you credit her with more than she did,” Ceruzzi says, “it really kind of backfires.”