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31 Mar 2016
Women's History Month: Ada Lovelace - The Enchantress of Numbers

Women's History Month: Ada Lovelace - The Enchantress of Numbers

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In honour of Women's History Month, we asked marketing intern Carys Lowry-Carter to write a few words on her favourite woman from history, and on becoming a part of the Historical Trips team. Here's what she had to say...

Born in 1815 to society girl Annabella Milbanke and famed Romantic Poet Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace would come to produce work foundational to the field of computer science and pave the way for future pioneers such as Alan Turing and Tim Berners-Lee, as well as for women and girls pursuing STEM careers. Determined that she wouldn’t pursue poetry like her infamous father, Annabella instead nurtured Ada’s interest in mathematics and logic from an early age, but, unable to deny her affiliation with the arts, she would come to describe herself as an “analyst and metaphysician”, and her approach as “poetical science”.

Poetical science is an interesting and oddly freeing concept, especially in an age where women and girls are still pigeonholed into embodying a single trait or interest. Despite an academic career consisting entirely of English literature, a handful of GCSE science re-sits and a slightly bigger handful of disastrous attempts at learning to code, interdisciplinary research has always been important to me. Little surprise, then, that when I was taken on as an intern at Specialist Journeys I was quick to embrace the chance to combine the skills learned over the course of my degrees with new areas of study. History? Sure. Archaeology? No problem. Marketing? Erm…

Modern commentators are often quick to minimise Ada’s influence, but neither her charm nor her importance lies in being the best mind of her generation, or even the best mathematician, but in her ability to think outside of the box and, occasionally, to dismantle that box altogether. Who better, then, for an enthusiastic intern to look up to? And who better for her to celebrate this Women’s History Month?

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From an early age, Ada was completely obsessed by machines. Her design for a steam-powered flying machine preceded that of the aerial steam carriage, patented by William Henson and John Stringfellow in 1842, by 15 years. She was 12.

Ada’s mother was not the only one who noticed and encouraged Ada’s talent: Cambridge and UCL professor Augustus De Morgan praised her thinking as being “utterly out of the common way”, and wrote in a letter to Ada’s mother that, had she been a man, she could become "an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence”. However, he also said that “the very great tension of mind which they [her maths problems] require is beyond the strength of a woman’s physical power of application.” While this may have stemmed from a concern for Ada’s health—she suffered from cholera, which left her bed-bound for over a year, and later uterine cancer—it still must have been immensely satisfying when Ada did conquer her maths problems.

It was Ada’s relationship with Charles Babbage which would come to be the most productive of her life. Babbage called her an “enchantress of numbers”, tending to see her as a sort of muse, but Lovelace’s role in their collaborative efforts was far more involved than she is often given credit for: in pointing out and correcting errors in Babbage’s work on the Analytical Engine, she essentially became the world’s first debugger, and among her notes on Luigi Menabrea’s work on the engine—which she translated from French into English herself—can be found what many consider to be the first ever algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine. Put simply, Lovelace wrote what is potentially the world’s first computer program.

Despite her brilliance, Ada’s modern detractors, including Alan Turing, are keen to point out that she dismissed early theories of artificial intelligence as preposterous. But what else are we to expect from the man for whom the Turing Test, designed to identify genuine artificial intelligence, is named. What else, too, from the man whose own computer designs were based on those by Babbage and Lovelace? Ada’s notes on Menabrea’s engine, discovered by Turing while working at Bletchley Park to crack German codes, were to become critical in shaping his approach.

Arguably, Ada’s short-sightedness when it came to the possibility of artificial intelligence isn’t important when considered in the wider context of her influence. Her interdisciplinary approach allowed her not only to focus on the finer details of complex mechanical and mathematical science, but also to consider the computer’s ability to do more than merely crunch numbers, and its potential to create everything from intricate musical movements to pieces of art. Perhaps most importantly, she imagined the many ways in which technology would be related to by individuals and by society, and asked questions about its potential as a collaborative tool. Sound familiar? The principles of collaboration and communication would lead Tim Berners-Lee, looking for a way for researchers to share work remotely, to invent the internet in 1989, forever changing the face of technology. So, wherever you venture next on the web, spare a thought not only for Berners-Lee, but for a certain enchantress of numbers…