Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Ada Lovelace: Sex and Algorithms Shocker

Today is Ada Lovelace Day. If you thought Ada Lovelace was a brand of lingerie*, bear with me, while I explain. Ada Lovelace Day is about encouraging women in science, maths and technology. If that all sounds too geeky, bear with me again: this blogpost also contains gossip. Filthy, scurrilous gossip; sodomy, drugs, and incest. And lady mathematicians.

Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace is famous for writing an algorithm that was intended to be processed by a machine. She is regarded by some as the world's first computer programmer, which isn't bad for someone born in 1815. What's interesting about her, in some ways, in how she fits in with all sorts of other remarkable people and events.

Let's start in 1792. French revolution in full swing. English King mad as a parrot. All kinds of bonkers ideas afoot. People literally losing their heads. Mary Wollstonecraft, an impecunious but educated working woman, gets pissed off and writes feminist blockbuster 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.' Later, she has a daughter with the philosopher William Godwin. In 1816, their daughter, Mary, marries posh, rebellious poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Shelley's best mate is Lord Byron, a man who will reliably shag anything that moves. Byron, in about 1812, is having a messy affair with cross-dressing Caroline Lamb. When he dumps her, Lamb writes a thinly disguised 'novel' outing all his unpleasant habits. Which is a full 10/10 on the revenge stakes, as far as I'm concerned. Since this is a bit boring, Byron starts having an incestuous affair with his half-sister. Everyone involved is doing jug-loads of opium. In an attempt to give him some sort of respectability, in 1815 Byron decides it's a good idea to marry uptight, geeky heiress Annabella Milbanke.

It probably isn't, since Annabella later manages to divorce Byron (no mean feat at the time) on the grounds on his fondness for sodomy. Presumably he'd also managed to find the front entrance, since they had one child, Ada.

Annabella was convinced poor Ada would be as immoral as her father, and didn't really like her. She did however provide her with various tutors. Ada didn't have any contact with her father. In 1818, Byron bogged off to the continent with the Shelleys. Mary invented science fiction, Shelley died in a boating accident, and Byron got ill and died while supporting a revolution in Greece. Let that be a lesson to anyone who's thinking of a spot of riot-tourism, OK? Just saying.

As an adult, Ada befriended various intellectuals, including Charles Babbage. Babbage was working on a way of doing mathematical calculations by machine. His first effort was the Difference Machine. He later developed a second prototype, the Analytical Machine. In 1842, Ada wrote a series of notes describing the difference between the two. These notes contain the algorithm which constitutes the original computer coding. Babbage's machines weren't constructed until 2002, when they were deemed viable. They would have been driven by steam.

Ada died in 1852, by which time the louche, scurrilous behaviour of her parents' generation was being banished by upright Victorian morality. What's interesting is that the people who were famous at the time - Byron and Shelley - have almost fallen into irrelevance. (If you only know 'Ozymandias' and 'She Walks in Beauty', you've probably no idea how impenetrable most of the crap they wrote really is). The people who left the lasting and important contributions were the women. Woolstonecraft's thoughts are still salient today, Shelley invented science fiction, one of the most popular genres of the last two centuries, and Lovelace contributed to the development of the device you're reading this on.

Also, as I said in my blog about Turing, it really isn't the people that sit in the university chairs, and have staid academic careers that come up with the ground-breaking ideas. It's always the odd-balls, and Ada Lovelace, like both her parents, was really pretty eccentric.

There isn't a moral to this story. It's Ada Lovelace Day: be nice to a lady geek. If you are a lady geek, and no-one is being nice to you (shame!) treat yourself to a spreadsheet.

*As you can see from the picture, she wasn't averse to a bit of lace. Or an affair, apparently. She'd probably have happily founded a brand of lingerie, if they'd had such a thing back then.


  1. What a fab post - I didn't know most of that, thank you. I like a good girl-power story, especially ones that dash through time & menfolk as merrily & speedily as this one :-)