Happy Ada Lovelace Day!
March 24, 2010 10:53 AM   Subscribe

A personal hero of mine, Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke is sometimes called the first computer programmer, based on her work with Charles Babbage and his "Difference Engine."
posted by Lynsey (21 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I thought for sure this was going to be about Ladyada's 24 hours of Lady Ada Lovelace.
posted by DU at 11:02 AM on March 24, 2010

She also has a programming language named after her!
posted by threetoed at 11:04 AM on March 24, 2010

Note that having that particular programming language named after her was not exactly a compliment. :(
posted by GuyZero at 11:13 AM on March 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

heh, her mama taught her math to counteract Lord Byron's madness.
posted by Cranberry at 11:13 AM on March 24, 2010

I could have sworn that there was a Lovelace programming language too. Oh wait, I'm thinking of Linda.

Also, the link at this previously has had quite a few sporadic updates since then and is pretty great.
posted by DU at 11:16 AM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Hmmm, looks like this post has crashed the Wiki server.
posted by Some1 at 11:17 AM on March 24, 2010

Hmmm, looks like this post has crashed the Wiki server.

OK, I thought I was going crazy.
posted by kmz at 11:20 AM on March 24, 2010

The Ada Lovelace Day homepage has a list of women-in-science posts from today here.
posted by handee at 11:29 AM on March 24, 2010

Happy You Day, Ada.
posted by scalefree at 11:36 AM on March 24, 2010

jim holt debunked her in the new yorker a while back:
It is doubtful whether Ada herself "originated" any of the ideas contained in her notes, except perhaps some of the more exuberantly speculative ones. On all technical and scientific points, regardless of how trifling, her letters show that she deferred to Babbage. Babbage, for his part, had good reason to connive in the fiction that the work was primarily Ada's: it not only made her notes a more effective piece of propaganda for his Analytical Engine but also enabled him to escape responsibility--on the pretense of not having been consulted--for some of her more hyperbolic claims. As for the other part of Ada's project--the translation of the Menabrea paper--that was marred by an embarrassing error, one that belies her reputation for mathematical competence...

It was Ada's own reputation that benefitted most from the publication of her notes. Copies distributed to her society friends, including an actor, a playwright, and an art historian, elicited expressions of (bewildered) admiration. The coupling of this apparent scientific accomplishment--such a rarity for a woman--with her existing Byronic stardom made her the object of intense public interest. In 1844, London society buzzed with rumors that she was the anonymous author of a daring new book called "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation," which prefigured Darwin in depicting humans as the evolutionary product of a universe governed by natural laws. Ada had not written the book. In fact, other than an abortive review of a paper on animal magnetism, she was to write nothing else of any substance for the remainder of her life...

Who was the first programmer? With Ada Lovelace dismissed from contention, one might think that Babbage merited this distinction, too, since he did write a number of programs for his unrealized computer. But computers do not exhaust the universe of programmable things. If "programming" means devising a set of coded instructions that will get an automated contraption to do your bidding, then the first great programmer was Joseph-Marie Jacquard--the Frenchman who, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, pioneered the use of punched cards to get automatic looms to weave complicated patterns. Babbage himself acknowledged Jacquard's precedence: when he presented the concept for his Analytical Engine at the Turin conference, he brought with him a silk portrait of Jacquard that had been produced by an automatic loom programmed by no fewer than twenty-four thousand cards.
some were not pleased...
posted by kliuless at 11:49 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

If "programming" means devising a set of coded instructions that will get an automated contraption to do your bidding, then the first great programmer was Joseph-Marie Jacquard...

If we are leaving out the idea of a general device with a separate set of coded instructions, I think we need to go back a bit further. I can't remember if it was Hero(n) of Alexandria or Archimedes that built falling sand/grain powered robots that could move around, perform little vignettes and leave the stage all without human intervention.
posted by DU at 12:00 PM on March 24, 2010

Holt's line is far from uncontroversial, and I think calling it a "debunking" somewhat overstates the case - this site considers the question in somewhat more depth (scroll down for full story).
posted by handee at 12:06 PM on March 24, 2010

Wow, almost as hot as Hypatia of Alexandria.
posted by Relay at 1:10 PM on March 24, 2010

If you define computer programming as writing instructions in a language that could also be used to simulate a universal Turing machine (which is generally accepted as a requirement in the definition of a programming language), I'm pretty sure this would make Lovelace or Babbage the first programmer.
posted by zixyer at 2:46 PM on March 24, 2010

Happy Ada Lovelace Day indeed...

I'm not a scholar, I'm quite literally just some clown, but I might be able to shed a bit of light on the not-very-edifying spectacle that is Ada Lovelace scholarship. I fell across this subject entirely by accident when I started doing this a little imaginary webcomic a year ago today as it happens, about Ada Lovelace (its been linked here before, thanks guys! except now I have this giant time-suck that is Metafilter interfering with comics production)

You don't go down very deep in this subject before you hit the debunking layer. Ye gods I could go on about this for a very long time but to keep it as brief as I possibly can. The historiography of Ada Lovelace linked to above is an excellent start, it has its own biases of course-- soon a historiography of the historiography of Ada Lovelace will be needed-- but it lines up pretty well with what I've found.

The 'debunking' view is essentially a conspiracy theory, as to follow the 'Lovelace was a mathematical idiot' line you have to buy that both Charles Babbage and August de Morgan, the two people in the best position to judge her abilities, were lying blatantly, frequently and for a very long time. This letter from Babbage to Michael Faraday is one I link to at every available opportunity; this letter from Augustus de Morgan is interesting for all sorts of reasons. De Morgan may have had his own fiendish plot to explain why he'd write such a thing about someone he actually thought was not very bright; but I've read a LOT of Babbage's writings and he strikes me in the strongest possible way as a man almost literally incapable of insincerity. That he would flat out lie like that to Faraday I cannot get my head around.

Holt's line here: "Copies distributed to her society friends, including an actor, a playwright, and an art historian, elicited expressions of (bewildered) admiration" by the way is drawn straight from Dorothy Stein's mystifyingly vicious biography, Ada, A Life and A Legacy, where she elaborately paints this picture of Lovelace 'bamboozling' her ignorant friends with the notes. She fails to add to this list of recipients of gift copies such gullible ignoramuses as Charles Wheatstone, Mary Somerville, Augustus De Morgan, and Michael Faraday. She has all kinds of convoluted explanations for the de Morgan letter above but doesn't mention the Babbage one as far as I know, or indeed any of the many references to Babbage's enthusiastic support of Lovelace's abilities.

As far as I can make out the need for the debuking theory arose from Stein's.. oh geez, what's the word.. confusion? surprise? at Lovelace's level of mathematical studies in her correspondence with de Morgan. Contrary to the Historiography timeline she was not the first person to look at this closely-- the still-unrivalled in my view 1980 article by the Huskey's was-- but she was certainly the first to think she'd hit gold. Or bunk, or whatever. Her first claim is that Lovelace failed Calculus, and her second is that she failed Trig-- the latter is based entirely, and I mean ENTIRELY, on a typo Lovelace missed in the Menabrea translation.

As to the former I personally can't make any kind of judgement of my own, I'm no expert and I'm definitely not an expert on period math. The correspondence has been looked at twice by specialists to my knowledge. Once by Peter Hilton, Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at NY State and math consultant for The Calculating Passion of Ada Byron, the best of the bios which believe me is not saying much-- it's very short and feels hasty, and has so many footnotes disputing Stein's take that I'm inclined to say it was written as a direct response. The other is Professor Diliberto of UC Berkley for Enchantress of Numbers. Neither of them seemed think there is anything particularly odd about her level of studies and with caution estimate her around a sharp graduate student for the period with bold ideas, although neither seems to come to a hard conclusion because there is insufficient data to do so.

Ada Lovelace was no question an extremely weird and frequently annoying person with a life full of ambiguities, anyone prepared to turn every ambiguity into a certain damnation can for sure paint a vivid picture. Me, I have my dark moments of doubt but the more I read the less frequent they get.

In this crazy mixed up world, if you can't trust Charles Babbage then who the heck CAN you trust, and if he tells me Ada Lovelace was an Enchanted Math Fairy with a peculiar capability, great than anyone he'd ever know, for preparing the descriptions relating to his calculating engines, I'm just going to go with that.

Erm, anyways, that's way long, but wow am I glad to get that off my chest. Um, carry on. Happy Ada Lovelace Day.
posted by Erasmouse at 3:32 PM on March 24, 2010 [24 favorites]

Despite what Jim Holt says in his New Yorker article, I don't see any reason to question the claim that Ada Lovelace was 'the first computer programmer'. In a letter she wrote to Babbage on 10 July 1843, she says: 'I want to put in something about Bernoulli's Number, in one of my Notes, as an example of how an explicit function may be worked out by the engine, without having been worked out by human head and hands first.' This expresses the principle of the computer program much more clearly and succinctly than Babbage ever managed to do -- and as Holt admits, it was Lovelace who came up with the idea of using the Bernoulli numbers as an example, even if she did get some of the algebra wrong. Holt claims that Babbage did all the maths and Lovelace just added the 'poetical conceits', but in fact Lovelace seems to have grasped the principle of the analytical engine better than Babbage did himself.

I did my bit for Ada Lovelace Day by putting her 1843 letter to Babbage out on display in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library. As far as I know, this is the first time that it's ever been out on public exhibition.
posted by verstegan at 3:41 PM on March 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

She gets a mention in my Mustapha Ali post too.
posted by tellurian at 4:44 PM on March 24, 2010

Ada Lovelace was no question an extremely weird and frequently annoying person with a life full of ambiguities

Unsurprising, given the frankly abusive upbringing her mother appears to have subjected her to.
posted by rodgerd at 11:56 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just stopped by to mention John Crowley's Lord Byron's Novel where Ada is a key figure in one of the strands of the story. Beautifully written and very sad.
posted by crocomancer at 5:40 AM on March 25, 2010

Just going to leave this here:

Lovelace and Babbage, comic crimefighters. Be sure to click around that blog and read them all.
posted by chrisamiller at 6:35 AM on March 25, 2010

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