Monday, 1 September 2014

Wardrobe and the Woman 2 : Ada Lovelace

Hi all, happy 1st September! (I suppose this means that summer is officially finished... excellent.) As part of this Technology series, here at Wardrobe and the World, I am going to do a few special Wardrobe and the Women posts, celebrating some of technology's undersung heroines. This week is the turn of the lovely Ada Lovelace.

Ada Lovelace - NOT MY PHOTO

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace – better known as Ada Lovelace – was born in 1815 to the Romantic poet Lord Byron and his wife Annabella Milbanke, who separated shortly after Ada was born. It was not an amicable split, Annabella spent the rest of her life telling fearful tales about Byron’s dirty deeds, and would not let her daughter see even a portrait of him until her 20th birthday.

Ada Lovelace - NOT MY PHOTO

Annabella loved mathematics and raised Ada on a strict diet of science, maths, and logic, in the hope that she might not inherit her father’s dangerous “poetic” temperament. This seemed to work and from an early age Ada had an aptitude for maths and a fascination with machines. When she was 12, Ada decided she wanted to fly and set about designing a flying machine, studying various materials, and birds’ wing spans, and trying to figure out whether she could power her machine with steam. She compiled her findings in a book called Flyology. Not your average pre-teen.

Mary Sommerville - NOT MY PHOTO

Her mentor was scientist and polymath Mary Somerville who introduced her to Charles Babbage, the famous mathematician, inventor, and mechanical engineer. She and Babbage became lifelong friends (he nicknamed her “Lady Fairy” and “The Enchantress of Numbers”) and it was through him, and his Analytical Engine, that Ada achieved lasting fame. Babbage’s Analytical Engine – although it was never built – had all the elements of a modern computer. In 1842, Ada translated an article from French about the device, expanding on it and adding her own observations. This article was simply called Notes and contains several early “computer programs” as well as Lovelace’s own remarks as to the future potential of the machine.

Charles Babbage - NOT MY PHOTO

Due to the elaborate and complete nature of Ada’s programs, and the fact that they are the first to ever be published, she is often known as the “first computer programmer”. Her notes contain the first algorithm ever intended to be carried out by a machine, but Ada’s vision of the potential for this early computer went far beyond number-crunching.

Trial Analytical Engine - NOT MY PHOTO

Despite her mother’s best efforts, Ada had indeed picked up some of her father’s “poetic” nature. She would often question basic assumptions about the world using both her intuition and her imagination, both poetry and science. She called her approach (rather aptly) “poetical science”, referring to herself as an “Analyst and Metaphysician”. This “poetical science” mindset led her to ask basic questions about the Analytical Engine, to explore the ways in which people interact and relate to technology as a tool. Her Notes became one of the critical documents to inspire Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computers in the 40s.

Alan Turing - NOT MY PHOTO

Throughout the 1840s, Ada was never far away from a scandal. Rumours of affairs were started due to her relaxed relationships with men who were not her husband and she loved to gamble. Even after her death she has caused controversy, with many disputing how much Ada actually contributed, and to what extent she was merely developing Babbage’s own ideas.

The Ada Initiative - NOT MY PHOTO

Whatever the truth of the matter may be, Ada Lovelace is widely accepted as a key figure in the development of the modern computer and has come to be the figurehead for many projects and institutions which support and choose to promote women in technology. For example, there is the Ada Initiative which aims to get more women involved in the free culture movement and open source technology, or the computer language “Ada” which was named after her and created on behalf of the US Department of Defense. Every October there is an “Ada Lovelace Day” whose goal is to “raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths."(For those who are interested, this year it is on October 14th). An “Ada Collection” of underwear has even been designed by the company “Dear Kate”, whose advertising campaign shows a number of female tech CEOs displaying the range.


I wonder what Byron would have thought of that... 

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