Suw founded Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). With grassroots events held around the world and thousands of people writing and talking about the women who have inspired them, the day seeks to raise women’s profiles and highlight unsung heroines.
Why should girls studying STEM at UTCs hear Ada’s story?
For me Ada’s story is so compelling, as she is such an interesting character. She is one of the earliest examples of a woman in technology. She had the ability to go beyond the mechanics of the analytical engine and look at what it could achieve. She imagined it could create graphics and music, which was absolutely revolutionary at the time. No one else was thinking that the analytical engine could be creative because they were really focused on it being a calculating machine that could crunch numbers. For me it’s not just that she was the first computer programmer, she was the first computer programmer in the Victorian era,- this was 150 years ago.
She was such a visionary who brought a level of creativity to her thinking that makes her an amazing role model. She really was working at the boundaries of arts and technology where I think a lot of really interesting things happen. From that point of view she is a fantastic role model because she pushed the boundaries and she was a visionary in a way that we can only appreciate now because we can see that her vision was true. Computers can now create art and music so she was so ahead of her time.
What do you think is the most common misconception about Ada?
There is a lot of discussion about Ada and whether she deserves to be called the first computer programmer. There are a lot of problems around how people interpret some of her legacy. Some people say she didn’t understand calculus. In part that is down to the miss-numbering of her letters. There is some criticism that is based on a misunderstanding around the order in which she wrote her letters. She didn’t correlate them with Augustus De Morgan’s papers on calculus, logic and the like. The other issue is a lot of people found calculus hard at the time. Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carol, studied maths at Oxford, he came top of his class. He went on to become a maths professor and he said he struggled with calculus.
I think we forget sometimes that, whilst calculus was quite well established it was still relatively new. There were some mathematics experts have said that Lovelace was working at the forefront of calculus at the time so its no wonder that she found it difficult. To my mind that doesn’t have any impact on whether or not she was capable of envisioning computer science based on Babbage’s plans for the analytical engine. I think a lot of the people who try to discredit her are really doing it because it makes them feel uncomfortable that it was Lovelace rather than Babbage that foresaw computing, as we know it today.
Why is Ada Lovelace still relevant today?
I think she is hugely relevant and, not just because she was the first computer programmer and as a society, as a culture, we really love firsts. I think she is really relevant to women in technology and women in STEM as well because there are still a lot of people who dispute her achievements. Some of this is based on Charles Babbage’s autobiography and some of it is based on an unwillingness to accept that a woman was in this position. I’ve heard a lot of arguments that say it wasn’t really computer programming but ultimately what she was doing was a form of programming in terms of the fact that this the only way it could have been done at that time. If that machinery were modern it would most certainly be called a computer programme.
I think there are a lot of women who are very familiar with having to prove and re-prove their capabilities and expertise. There are a lot of women who have been told that they don’t really understand things because there is still an issue with sexism in STEM and in society more broadly. To me that makes her a role model, not just from the point of view of what she achieved with the analytical engine but from the point of view of her legacy. We have to fight for her because she isn’t here to do it. We have to fight on her behalf for her to defend the accusations that she isn’t worthy of admiration because a lot of that comes from a very misguided place. To me that makes her a quintessentially modern figure and she is going through exactly the same things women today are going through. We have to act as her proxy to defend her legacy.
You talk about her legacy, so what are the most important lessons Ada Lovelace can teach us?
I think, slightly flippantly, to always take a back up, because the first computer programme did get lost either by the printer or by Babbage and she had to go back and re-write it, which she was not best pleased about. I think what it is about is that really interesting things happen on the boundaries of disciplines. Lovelace was obviously the daughter of Lord Byron the poet. She wrote her own poetry. She was a very creative person. She also had very strong analytical skills, very strong mathematical skills. To me we are still in this C P Snow, two cultures, society where you are told you have to choose between the arts and the humanities, or science and technology, and Lovelace didn’t. Lovelace didn’t have to choose between being creative and being technical. She did both and, in bringing her creativity to the analytical engine, that was what allowed her to be as visionary as she actually was. If she had been purely creative, or purely technical she would never have seen the opportunity she did. She would never have seen the capabilities inherent in the analytical engine in the way that she did.
So, for me, one of the most important lessons Lovelace can teach us is that there is no division between the humanities and science. That is artificial. That is a modern artifice and we should look beyond that into how we combine creative thinking and technical thinking and what amazing things happen at that boundary.
What do you love about Ada’s story most of all?
Ada was a really fascinating character. She was really her own person. I love her character. I love the way that she had very distinct ideas about things. She was very forthright and very up front about her thoughts and she didn’t really care about whether what she was doing was appropriate for a lady of her status. She just did stuff and she was incredibly creative. When she was about 12 she designed a flying machine and it was based partly on a horse and partly on a bird.
She actually studied the bird’s anatomy and looked at the ratio of the wing length to the body size and came up with this idea for a steam powered flying machine. The engine would be in the belly of the machine. This was 12 years before the first actual flying machines, and she was just a kid. She was just incredibly creative and that kind of creativity where, if she wanted to know about something, she studied it. If she wanted to figure something out, then she worked out what she needed to know and she studied that. She was very autonomous and very motivated and I really do admire that about her.
It’s an absolute tragedy that she died so young. She was 36 and died of uterine cancer. We know that she bought a kaleidoscope before she died. We know she was interested in electricity and you do wonder where would she have gone, what would she have achieved if she had lived even a little bit longer and I think that is a great tragedy.
If you could ask Ada one question, what would it be?
If I could ask her one question it really would be, 'what were you thinking about when you were talking about electricity? What did you want to do with electricity?' We know a fair amount about the process by which she wrote the first computer programme. We know a faint amount about the analytical engine and I think ultimately Babbage never finished the design.
He never built the analytical engine but Lovelace did try. She did offer to be a project manager for him to maybe make the thing a reality and it’s a real pity that he turned her down. I am very curious about what her plans were when she fell ill. What was she curious about? What did she want to go on to do?
What is your message for girls at UTCs who are looking to pursue a career in STEM?
I think look for inspiring stories and learn about women who have done interesting things and always hold that close to your heart because with any career there are challenges and it’s all about what gets you through those challenges. Its about resilience and being a little bit stubborn, but its also about having that sense that other women have done this before you. Other women have trodden this path and they have hacked their way through the undergrowth so that it’s a little bit easier for you.
Always hold those stories close and be inspired by them, because there is a place for you. There is opportunity for you. There is great satisfaction in working in STEM. It’s exciting and its fun and you get to do really amazing things. We all suffer from moments of doubt and, when you do, just focus on the fact that other women have been there, other women have experienced that doubt and they ploughed through and they carried on and they achieved great things and so can you.