"Engineer" of the Week No.119: Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (née Byron; 10 December 1815 – 27 November 1852)
On her 204th birthday we remember Ada Lovelace, mathematics writer.
In October each year, many university departments of computer science hold an “Ada Lovelace Day” to encourage their female students and staff. You will note that October is neither the month of her birth nor death – it has been picked purely for academic term time convenience.
I have felt it necessary to include Ada as one of the “Engineer of the Week” profiles because so many people consider her an important icon in promoting STEM work to girls and women. Ada Lovelace is very well known even amongst the general public who are not connected with any STEM fields – she is often the person named if they are asked to name a female engineer from the past. As such, I have not provided a detailed biography of Ada, since there are many to be found online and in books.
There is a computer programming language named after her – Ada being a high level development of the Pascal language. If you Google “Ada Lovelace”, some 1.7 million results appear and the following are a selection of the epithets applied to her from the first page of results:
Prophet of the computer age.
Powerful symbol for modern women in technology.
Computer Programmer, Mathematician.
The world's first computer programmer.
Associate of Charles Babbage, for whose prototype of a digital computer she created a program. She has been called the first computer programmer.
World's First Computer Programmer.
There are far more hagiographic pieces about her than there are critical considerations of her work. For a detailed, critical examination of the many claims made for her, read The Renaissance Mathematicus ( https://thonyc.wordpress.com/2018/11/03/no-simply-no/ ) and for a more enthusiastic survey of her work look at Untangling The Web ( https://www.wired.com/2015/12/untangling-the-tale-of-ada-lovelace/ ).
I do not consider her to have been an engineer – a mathematician, and a competent one - yes, but not one with significant original thoughts in that field. A talented writer, explainer/interpreter – also yes. In the matter of being the first to propose algorithms for general use of the mechanical computing machines – it is almost certain that both Babbage himself and (much earlier) Gottfried Leibniz had had the same ideas - but nowadays hers are the ones that are so widely known. She came from deep privilege – the celebrity daughter of a celebrity poet-hero, the indulged wife of a rich man, beautiful, more highly educated than almost any woman in the country at the time – all of these contribute to her fame then and now. But we do her undoubted talents no favours if we exaggerate them and she herself would probably have been the first to do a critical analysis of today’s many fawning profiles of her. Her lessons to today’s young people who might enter STEM work should be: read widely, seek concrete evidence, and ask what might be possible next.