Repurposing Ada

A Victorian countess is widely credited today as the first programmer -- but historians say that doesn't compute.

Published March 16, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, mathematician and English society hostess, daughter of the poet Byron, is today revered as something of a prophet. She's been the subject of at least three biographies, numerous articles, essays and, most recently, a movie starring Tilda Swinton. By one account, visitors to Ada's grave outnumber those to her father's.

That's not as surprising as at first it seems: Today, technology means more to most people than poetry, and Ada's fame derives from her collaboration, in the 1840s, with Charles Babbage -- the cantankerous intellectual who tried, and failed, to build what might have been the world's first computer, the Analytical Engine.

For her work with Babbage, Ada has recently been granted such grandiose monikers as "the world's first programmer," "the mother of computing," "the mother of the modern computer," "inventor of the first computer language" and "mathematical genius." She's been distinguished by the United States Army, which named its universal programming language Ada in her honor in 1983. The book "1,000 Years, 1,000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium" ranks Ada at number 960, coming in for the show right behind John von Neumann's 959. (Babbage himself galloped ahead of both to place at number 351. Bill Gates got lost in the backstretch.) She was even profiled in the official companion book to last year's Lilith Fair.

She's frequently portrayed as a sexual libertine, a compulsive gambler and a drug addict who despised her children -- a veritable one-woman Thelma and Louise of primitive computation. "Cyberfeminists" like Sadie Plant, author of "Zeros + Ones: Digital Women + the New Technoculture," hold her up like a torch, a Byronic martyr to the struggle against a brutal and oppressive patriarchal technocracy who was intentionally "disappeared" from history.

The image of Ada Lovelace has coalesced into a potent and popular myth, one in which a complicated personality from the 19th century gets boiled down into an archetype for the dispossessed of the 20th. This Ada is wild and powerful and alluring. There's only one problem: According to the experts, she's a fiction. "This romantically appealing image," writes one scholar, "is without foundation."

It's the Ada Myth that drives "Conceiving Ada," a film directed by U.C. Davis arts professor Lynn Hershman Leeson. The plot is a kind of fusion between cyberpunk and historical drama, with a nod to "Our Bodies, Ourselves." Emmy (Francesca Faridany) is a computer genius living with her shaggy boyfriend Nick (J.D. Wolfe) in a groovy Multimedia Gulch warehouse. Somehow, Emmy programs her computer to look into the past, through which she voyeuristically watches actress Tilda Swinton do her brooding "Orlando" bit as the ill-starred supergenius, Ada. As Emmy looks into the past, the audience is treated to snippets of a decidedly '90s version of Ada's life struggles against 19th century sexism, laudanum addiction and compulsive gambling, not to mention her own unstoppable intellect. Eventually, Emmy conceives -- and thanks to Nick's meddling with Emmy's computer, out pops a "cybergenetic" clone of Ada herself (Rose Lockwood).

Leeson's Ada, like Plant's, is a misunderstood genius -- a woman born 160 years before her time. She understands Babbage's machines better than Babbage, encrypts her scarf with ciphers with which to secretly transmit bets to the racetrack, hobnobs with Mary Shelley, is alternatively wild and sullen -- maybe even bipolar -- taking lovers on a whim and battling the patriarchy in the meantime. Leeson insists that everything in her film concerning Ada is based in fact. She credits "Ada, Enchantress of Numbers: Prophet of the Computer Age," a collection of Ada's letters and biographical notes by science historian Betty Alexandra Toole, as a major source. "It's all true," says Hershman.

"It's a fantasy," counters Toole. "Lynn tells a story which fits her needs as a filmmaker." Toole also takes umbrage at Plant, who, she says, used her work as a source to draw a similarly questionable caricature. Given the textual record, Toole says she's hard-pressed to figure out why modern people insist on making Ada into a revolutionary, a wanton, a gambler and a druggie. But she does note that in today's Foucaultian academic world, transgression is the mode du jour. "It's what we have come to," she says. "It sells books and movies." It also buys tenure.

Reading Ada's letters, as published in Toole's book, we're treated to a
very different Ada. This one is a mother who alternatively loves and
loathes her children; is often (but not always) fond of her husband via an
arranged marriage; enjoys dogs and horses and ice skating in winter; has a
gift for math and the poesy to articulate its complexities; enjoys a good
party (especially in the company of other scientific minds), the theater,
the opera and, on occasion, betting the ponies. She is also a Victorian
countess -- a proud one -- who is nevertheless struggling to find a
"useful" profession between, in and around her social and domestic duties.
This Ada also may (or may not) have had affairs with a number of men,
including Charles Dickens. She's a woman who died young and in pain from a
disease doctors were helpless to treat, except to prescribe laudanum,
cannabis and even mesmerism to relieve her suffering. In short, the Ada that
comes through in her letters is not a myth but a whole person.

The core of the Ada Myth lies in her alleged role as the Analytical
Engine's "programmer." Ada met Babbage, 43 and already a widower, at a
party in 1833. Just 17, she had a talent for mathematics and an enthusiasm
for science -- having been drilled by her domineering mother, Lady Byron,
since early childhood. As intellectual fellow travelers, the two quickly
hit it off. Later, Babbage showed Ada the still-incomplete invention he
would work on for a decade, a calculating machine he called the Difference
Engine, created to execute flawless mathematical tables.

Ada watched rapt as the wheels, rods and gears of the brass and pewter
machine turned, accurately raising numbers by orders of magnitude and
extracting the root of a quadratic equation. She was rapt but not
dumbstruck; her grasp of the machine's principles of calculating
differences was immediate and articulate, and Babbage recognized it. She
was so taken with the machine that her mother would later write that Ada
considered the Difference Engine "a friend." It was also the beginning
of a friendship between Ada and Babbage that would last until Ada's
untimely death of uterine cancer 21 years later.

Unfortunately for both, Babbage so loved tinkering with his work that he
could never let go of it -- he had what science fiction writer Bruce
Sterling describes as "hacker's disease." After 10 years' work and having
burned through 17,000 pounds of the British government's money, he
abandoned the unfinished Difference Engine (already in version 2.0) for an
even grander scheme, the Analytical Engine. For all its utility, the
Difference Engine had been little more than a glorified adding machine,
able to add one plus one plus one, ad nauseam, though in relatively rapid
succession compared to a person armed with pencil and paper. The Analytical
Engine, by contrast, would be able perform any calculation, utilizing
punched cards for operations and variables -- similar to the electronic
computers of the early 1950s.

"Functionally, the Analytical Engine was just like modern machines,"
says William Aspray, co-author of "Computer: A History of the
Information Machine" with Martin Campbell-Kelly. "But it had essentially no
storage capability compared to today's computers, and its speed was a few
calculations a minute."

A decade after Babbage began the Analytical Engine, it was still on the
drawing board, owing to troubles with his engineer, his own stubbornness
and the government's unwillingness to spend any more on his radical
schemes. In 1842 an Italian military engineer, L.F. Menabrea (later Italy's
prime minister), published his "Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by
Charles Babbage Esquire." Delighted, Babbage asked Ada to translate the
document into English and, under his guidance -- the extent of which is not
precisely known -- add some notes of her own, which wound up three times
longer than the original manuscript. Babbage was so impressed by the
"Notes," as they've become known, that he urged Ada to redraft and publish
them in separate volume. Ada wouldn't hear of it. She knew too well
Babbage's mania for tinkering, and argued that if her "Notes" were not
published immediately, they might never be.

It's from the "Notes" that Ada's "programmer" reputation comes. Together
the "Sketch" and the "Notes" describe the Analytical Engine and how
routines might have been run on it, had it ever been built. Is there an
actual computer program tucked away in the "Notes"? In them, did Ada invent
a programming language? Is Ada, then, entitled to wear the badge of "first

"Absolutely not," says Betty Toole. "Ada certainly did not invent a
computer language." Toole says Ada's immediate and substantive
contributions lay in differentiating the Analytical Engine from its
predecessor, using easy-to-read tabular format, and adding indices much
like those in a modern computer program. (Toole has co-authored an article
slated to appear in the May Scientific American on this topic.) Other
scholars, like the University of Sydney's Allan Bromley, won't give Ada
even that much credit. "All of the programs cited in her notes," he writes,
"had been prepared by Babbage from three to seven years earlier."

Toole insists the "Notes" were a close collaboration between Ada and
Babbage and says her Scientific American article will support that view.
Furthermore, Toole says, Ada's contributions went beyond the merely
quantifiable, into the metaphorical. Ada had as keen a flair for turning a
phrase as she had a talent for mathematics. In the "Notes" she speaks of
the Analytical Engine weaving "algebraic patterns just as a Jacquard loom
weaves flowers and leaves." Her "Notes" also predict that, given the right
algorithms, calculating engines might compose music and create graphics.
She even presaged Alan Turing and the "garbage-in, garbage out" effect,
saying, "The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate any
thing. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform -- it
has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths."

"She didn't write any programs," says Martin Campbell-Kelly, Aspray's
co-author. "But she didn't have to write them, in my opinion. I think it's
pretty impressive to do what she did." Like Toole, Campbell-Kelly honors
Ada as a pioneer, if not a programmer as the term is understood today.

co-author of the speculative "steampunk" novel, "The Difference
Engine," with William Gibson, which theorizes a world overtaken by
Babbage's machines, chalks up the current Ada Myth to the
contemporization of history -- what the critic Harold Bloom famously called "misprision." "Everybody has to remake the past in their own image," Sterling
says. "Hollywood does it all the time. There's a 1930s Queen Elizabeth, a
'40s Elizabeth, a '50s Elizabeth. Now there's an androgynous, '90s Queen

"It's like Charles Lindbergh -- did he invent manned flight?" Sterling
continues. "I don't think so. He made one particular bold, headline-seizing
adventure and was idolized forever after. I see Ada as being in that same
sort of position. She happened to write the first ever documentation on
what it meant to be computer programmer."

By Michael Mattis

Michael Mattis is associate editor at Business 2.0.

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