Ada Lovelace has become an iconic figure for women in science and is often credited with the invention of modern computing. But, as Ursula Martin—mathematician, computer scientist and Lovelace biographer—explains, all of that is a bit overblown. The Lovelace myth obscures the truth about a woman who was certainly a very brilliant mathematician, but who was also often frustrated in her scientific ambitions, in poor health and unhappy.
Before we get to the books you’ve chosen about Ada Lovelace, I’d like to ask a couple of preliminary questions. There seems to be a huge range of views about Ada Lovelace’s importance as a mathematician and a computer scientist. What does her reputation as a mathematical genius rest and what has she or history left us to support that reputation?
Ada Lovelace, who was born in 1815 and died aged 36 in 1852, was famous in her lifetime for being the daughter of Annabella Milbanke and her estranged husband, Lord Byron, the wildly popular romantic poet.
Lovelace’s reputation today rests on a scientific paper that she published in 1843, which gave an account of Charles Babbage’s unbuilt analytical engine, a giant mechanical device, organised on the same principles as a modern electronic computer. The first third of the paper is a translation from an article written in French by Menabrea; the rest is original to Lovelace.
The paper is a clear, high-level account of the mathematical principles of the engine: Babbage never published anything of the kind himself, probably because he was too caught up in other activities. It contains a big table of formulae which is often called ‘the first computer programme’. Claiming ‘firsts’ for complex contemporary concepts is unhelpful and somewhat simplistic, and the table is not a ‘programme’ in the modern sense, though any modern programmer would understand the thinking behind it.
What really captures the attention today is that the paper also contains far-reaching speculation about what the engine might do—like think for itself, or compose music—written in language that is strikingly accessible to the modern reader.
Lovelace’s paper was largely forgotten until the 1950s, when it, and Lovelace, were taken up by the nascent British computer industry eager to place a glamorous countess at the heart of a supposed origin story of British computing (the Bletchley Park origin story was still secret).
This seems to have been the start of the hero worship of Ada Lovelace, which has been amplified and twisted with the telling, so we end up with ludicrous claims that she designed the analytical engine (and Babbage stole her ideas); invented software and operating systems; brought about Silicon Valley; and even invented the CD.
All nonsense. As his notebooks and other writings show, Babbage’s work, which he’d started before Lovelace was even born, was deep and far-reaching, and certainly contained elements which have parallels in modern developments, though the later pioneers were not familiar with his work. Lovelace’s role was much more that of an articulate expositor and commentator, with a deep understanding of Babbage’s machines.
“She was a gifted, perceptive and knowledgeable mathematician, with a keen eye for detail, fascination with big questions, and flair for deep insights”
She has attracted attention because of her gender and family background, and her present day status as an icon for women in science has served to amplify the overblown claims. If, in an alternate reality, the paper had been the only scientific output by one of Babbage’s male acquaintances, with a more modest family background, the author would probably have remained a footnote.
It’s perhaps not a surprise that this overblown adulation has led to extreme—and sometimes extremely sexist—pushback, suggesting that Lovelace was delusional, mathematically naïve, or lacked the understanding to read, never mind write, the 1843 paper.
A separate strand to add to the mix is the numerous biographies of Lovelace. Her parents separated just after she was born, and the copious family archives have provided rich pickings for biographers. Early writers mostly ignored her scientific interests to focus on her family, generally taking her father’s side and condemning her mother as cruel and vindictive. And the archives, including almost daily letters between Lovelace and her mother, provide plenty of material to work with: her parents; her family; the twists and turns of her sometimes erratic personal life; and the sad end of her short life, with extraordinarily painful uterine cancer treated with opiates and alcohol, and family tensions exacerbated by her heavy losses from gambling. Betty Toole’s 1992 transcriptions of Lovelace’s letters opened up the archive to the general reader, allowing a more balanced view.
With so much else to write about, it is perhaps understandable that the hundreds of dense pages of Lovelace’s notes on calculus received little attention: one early biographer called them ‘hieroglyphics’, and another dismissed Lovelace’s supposed mathematical ability because she was ‘always asking questions’.
And was your interest spurred by the 200th anniversary of her birth in 2015 or how did you get involved?
In 2015 the Bodleian Library approached Oxford’s history of mathematics group to collaborate on celebrating the bicentenary, and, of course, our first step—Christopher Hollings, Adrian Rice and myself—was to look at Lovelace’s mathematical archives. We were amazed to find that we were the first historians of mathematics to do so: the work needs specialists, as it’s a mistake to pick up a page of what looks like modern mathematics and interpret it that way, because the context and meaning were very different.
The bulk of the material is, essentially, a correspondence course with Augustus De Morgan, a professor at what is now University College London, at the level of his undergraduate students. As the letters unfold it’s delightful to see a talented enthusiastic student getting to grips with high-level material with the aid of a gifted and perceptive teacher, sometimes getting stuck, and sometimes pushing back and exposing errors in De Morgan’s thinking. Our research showed she was a gifted, perceptive and knowledgeable mathematician, with a keen eye for detail, fascination with big questions, and flair for deep insights, which enabled her to challenge some deep assumptions in her teacher’s work. Her ambition, in time, to do significant mathematical research was entirely credible (and De Morgan agreed), though sadly curtailed by her ill-health and early death. Our researches turned into a book, which reproduces some of her papers and diagrams, and explains her mathematics and science in the context of the time.
Let’s move on to the books about Ada Lovelace you’re recommending. The first one we’ll talk about is Miranda Seymour’s In Byron’s Wake. Tell us why you’ve chosen this biography out of all of the hundreds that are out there.
Miranda Seymour’s biography of Ada Lovelace and Annabella Byron is based on thorough contemporary research in archives in Oxford and elsewhere, some of which have only come to light recently. It’s very well written, keeping track of the sometimes strained relationships among the extended Byron, Milbanke and King families, as well as of a Dickensian cast (including Dickens himself) of family friends, scientists, lawyers, divines, doctors and gamblers. It steers away from over-romantic presentations of Byron and his wife and daughter, and, unlike some earlier biographies, avoids the temptation of taking sides in the Byron marriage, or of rehashing earlier myths. It doesn’t shy away from the complexities of the lives of its subjects, but addresses them honestly and in a principled way.
Obviously she never really knew her father, but she must have been very aware of him. It’s said that her mother was very keen to free her from Byron’s influence, but perhaps as a result of that almost imposed it on her. I was just wondering, did Ada self-consciously model herself on her father or hero worship him in any way—she certainly asked to be buried next to him?
She was fascinated by him—a small child brought up by her mother, with a famous father she never knew—he had died during the Greek War of Independence when she was eight. In later life she sometimes compares herself to him. She once wrote “I shall in due time be a poet”, but that ambition was not fulfilled. She was well aware of the social status that came, not just from being Byron’s daughter, but, also through her mother’s family: Annabella was first cousin of Lord Melbourne, Whig politician and Queen Victoria’s first prime minister—Lord Melbourne’s wife, Caroline Lamb, was also one of Byron’s most public mistresses. Lovelace’s social status, and the sense of entitlement it brought her, offset some of the disadvantages of being a woman in predominantly male scientific circles.
Was her education extremely unusual for an upper class young woman of the early 19th century? She wasn’t being taught to sew, play the piano and speak French, was she?
She was being taught all those things, by governesses, as was typical for young women of her social class, alongside elementary mathematics and science, which was not so uncommon either. Her mother Annabella had a passion for mathematics—Byron in Don Juan called her a ‘walking calculation’. She encouraged her daughter’s interests, sought out textbooks and tutors for her, and they both went to Charles Babbage’s evening parties in London, where he would show off working models of his inventions. The teenage Ada became intrigued by astronomy, seeing if the position of stars matched the predictions of the formulae governing their movement: this was the original motivation for her interest in studying calculus with De Morgan.
“Lovelace’s social status, and the sense of entitlement it brought her, offset some of the disadvantages of being a woman in predominantly male scientific circles”
It is sometimes said that her mother forced her to learn mathematics instead of poetry, but that’s a bit overblown. Her mother encouraged her mathematical interests: later in life Lovelace did aspire to write poetry, though what survives is not especially memorable. She was a very intelligent woman and pursued many ambitions and interests intensely at different periods in her short life. But mathematics was her passion in her late teens and early twenties, and that is when she became fascinated by Charles Babbage’s engines, and what they might be able to do.
And does Seymour cover all this or is the book very much focused on family side of things?
Yes, indeed. But it’s a biography, rather than a history of technology. It focuses on Lovelace and her mother and their interactions with the people around them, including scientists like Babbage, De Morgan and Mary Somerville. It doesn’t go so much into the bigger scientific or mathematical context of the time.
What about her husband, the Earl of Lovelace? Was it a dynastic marriage, or was it a love match? And did he share her scientific interests? I’ve read somewhere that she had at least one affair during her marriage.
Ada Byron was introduced to William, Lord King—later through the intervention of Lord Melbourne upgraded to Earl of Lovelace—through Mary Somerville’s family. The couple shared scientific interests. He wrote several papers on using data to improve agricultural production, at least one with the help of his wife, and later in life developed a somewhat eccentric interest in architecture. As to the supposed affairs, it’s hard to tell: they may have been no more than intense friendships with men who shared her scientific interests, though her husband certainly disapproved of at least one of them and the correspondence was destroyed.
Maybe people have been trying to make her more Byronic and reflect her father in some way.
Yes. In the earliest biographies, Babbage or computing were hardly mentioned, and the focus was on the supposed wild daughter of Lord Byron.
She was a bit of a gambler. Was her interest in gambling a result of being interested in probability, or was she just interested in horses?
She was certainly interested in horses, and a bit of a daredevil horsewoman. As to the gambling, in the last years of her life she was a member of a syndicate of some kind, and lost a lot of money. It’s tempting to think that she might have had a sophisticated mathematical system, but my sense is that she was in a weak frame of mind and just got caught up in the excitement. The interest in horses continued with her daughter, who travelled in the Near East with her husband Wilfred Scawen Blunt, and introduced the first Arab horses to the UK.
Let’s move on to the next book, Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception and Secret Authorship of the Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by James Secord. You’d better tell us a bit about what the Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was and why it was so sensational and then tell us how it fits into Ada’s story.
If you’re trying to understand Lovelace’s writings and scientific interests in their context you have to shift your mindset back to the mid-19th century and the intellectual currents of the time. Vestiges of Creation was published anonymously in 1844, written by a Scottish journalist called Robert Chambers, though he wasn’t revealed as the author for some 40 years. It was very controversial and very popular—and so there was much speculation as to who had written it, with both Prince Albert and Ada Lovelace among the suggested names.
Vestiges was controversial because it was discussing ideas of evolution, natural history and theology in a way that prefigured Darwin’s later writings. Secord’s book unpacks the whole intellectual climate around it. What were the ideas? Why were they controversial? Who was reading it? What did they think of it? Why did people want to ban it? It’s a rich and complicated book, and perhaps one example will show how it sets Lovelace’s 1843 paper in context. Lovelace wrote, “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform.”
Get the weekly Five Books newsletter
Modern writers, notably Alan Turing, have interpreted this in the context of artificial intelligence. But for Lovelace, and Babbage, it concerned an intense theological debate: does the calculating machine challenge God or is it a creation of God, which will help us better understand His works? Since Babbage wanted to persuade the government to fund his machines, the latter, more conservative point of view was certainly more politic.
In placing 19th century intellectual life in its context, Secord’s book is a reminder of the intensity of theological debate at the time, and how it affected scientific thought.
At this time, partly because of the role of the church and religion in society and their relationship to the state, there were always political implications for beliefs in a way that is diminished now. Was Ada conventionally religious or was she fairly unreligious? And was she a political radical?
Lady Byron was intensely religious: her daughter less so. As the connection to Lord Melbourne might suggest, mother and daughter were involved in social reform. They campaigned against slavery, and, before there was universal state education, founded schools for local children, run on the principles of the Swiss educational reformer, Johann Pestalozzi.
Let’s move on to the other book about the broader intellectual background of Ada Lovelace’s life, which is Mathematics in Victorian Britain by Raymond Flood, Adrian Rice and Robin Wilson. What does it tell us about the environment in which Ada worked?
It’s very easy to write a very dry mathematics or computer-science book, but here the authors aren’t setting out lists of mathematical facts, but looking at who was doing and using mathematics, and why, in an approachable way that presents context as well as achievement. In the earlier part of the century British mathematical education and research was transformed by reformers like Augustus De Morgan and Charles Babbage, who brought in new ideas from France and Germany. Popularisers like Mary Somerville brought ideas to the public in an approachable way. Later in the century, James Clerk Maxwell brought a new mathematical approach to physics, and the mathematical analysis of data was put to practical use by pioneers like Charles Farr and Florence Nightingale.
Slightly going back to this issue of just how brilliant she was, was she across the frontier of all these areas of scientific advance at the time, or was her interest narrowly focused? Or was her mathematical knowledge, and interest generally, fairly workaday?
Questions of genius and brilliance are a bit of an ahistorical constriction, and often complicated by present or past expectations of gender. At the time science was not as compartmentalised, or as professionalised, as it is today. There was an emerging community of scientists, with fluid boundaries between work in chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy or mathematics, and between what would now be considered research, and more explanatory material, such as Mary Somerville’s translations. Only a few were making a living from science, for example employed at Greenwich Observatory, or in the small number of universities. There was a public enthusiasm for science, with organisations like the British Association and Royal Institution, providing lectures open to women as well as men, though universities, and learned societies like the Royal Society, remained all male affairs. Lovelace’s correspondents included the scientific elite of the day: Babbage, De Morgan, Faraday, Florence Nightingale, John and William Herschel, Mary Somerville, Wheatstone and Whewell.
So, she was certainly involved in conversations with everyone who was advancing the boundaries of scientific knowledge.
Yes, indeed. And as well as the suggestion she might have written Vestiges, it was seriously proposed that she be appointed as a kind of scientific advisor to Prince Albert.
Let’s move on to Sydney Padua’s graphic novel, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. Tell us why you’ve chosen this and a bit about where Padua improves on history.
I absolutely love this book. Sydney Padua creates a complete alternate reality where Lovelace stays healthy, Babbage builds the engine, and they use it to fight crime and have adventures: the Duke of Wellington, George Eliot, Brunel, Dickens, Boole and Lewis Carroll all get involved. So in one sequence Wellington turns up in their workshop, on his horse, to ask them to fix the economic crisis; they build a steam-powered economic model, which smashes through the wall of the workshop, does a dead-cat bounce, and then runs amok in London while chased —in a splendid two page spread—by Lovelace on a horse before crashing into the Bank of England. There are lots of jokes at the expense of quants, bank crashes, and the Black-Scholes equation.
Underpinning it all is a huge amount of research, and an appendix with an articulate, readable and clear explanation of the engineering of the engine, with jokes and footnotes for good measure. I use some of Padua’s illustrations and animations in lectures, because it’s so nicely done.
Is her foresight in relation to what computers might be capable of—that they might end up composing music and that kind of thing—exaggerated?
What she wrote was that if you could find a mathematical formula to represent musical composition, then the engine could “compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent”. The idea appears in Babbage’s notebooks as well: Sydney Padua uses Babbage’s notorious hatred of barrel-organs to make a joke at his expense about the engine being turned into a giant barrel-organ.
Let’s move on to the final book you’ve chosen, which is Middlemarch by George Eliot. Obviously, it’s not about Ada Lovelace, but Dorothea Brooke/Casaubon.
Yes. I think one does often turn to novelists to get a sense of other people’s lives. It was written in 1871, but it’s written about a period 40 or so years before, the period when Ada Lovelace flourished. It’s about an intelligent woman trapped by the expectations and the circumstances of the society she finds herself in. She has this great belief in the intellectual project of Mr Casaubon, the clergyman she marries, and then her belief in that gradually dissolves. It’s about provincial society and how stultifying provincial society can be.
When you read her letters, you see the sadness and—to some extent—misery of Lovelace’s later life. One of her early biographies has a lengthy appendix with a posthumous diagnosis of manic depression. Posthumous medical diagnoses are considered rather poor form for biographers these days. But she wasn’t actually the happy, crazy person of the Lovelace and Babbage book: that’s why it’s rather powerful because it recreates her as this person who does find fulfilment in all these crazy ideas.
“She was thwarted by society’s expectations of her, her family’s expectations of her, and the expectations she had formed of herself”
But, in reality, she was thwarted by society’s expectations of her, her family’s expectations of her, and the expectations she had formed of herself. That’s why Middlemarch sets the context and helps you understand what it was like to be Lovelace, if you like. And it also sets a context of the changes that technology was bringing. It’s a time of huge ferment with the coming of the railways, the coming of the telegraph, with old certainties being challenged. And that’s the world in which Lovelace lived.
Dorothea is from a provincial, not very rich family. Ada does have the advantage of having this very aristocratic, rich background. But was she intellectually frustrated? Do you get a sense from reading her letters, or studying her life, that she felt she could have achieved much more if she’d been a man? And did she say anything about feminism?
While Lovelace and her mother were passionate anti-slavery campaigners, they were not supporters of giving women the vote. As to frustration, she certainly writes, a number of times, of her ambition to make a major scientific or mathematical contribution. Towards the end of her life she was thinking about what she called a ‘calculus of the nervous system’, intended to be some way of modelling the workings of the brain, but there is no evidence she developed the idea. Perhaps she had in mind the calculus Babbage developed for representing the mechanisms of his engines, which he thought of as his finest work.
Support Five Books
Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by donating a small amount.
Throughout her life Ada Lovelace suffered from ill health, and was eventually diagnosed with uterine cancer. She was prescribed increasing quantities of narcotics, accompanied by alcohol to counter the side effects. This may explain the wild language of some of her private letters, particularly to her mother, where she made ambitious claims about her mathematical legacy. We don’t really know what form of legacy she was thinking of: textbooks and translations, like her friend Mary Somerville; or mathematical papers in her own right, like her teacher De Morgan; or unpublished but far-reaching innovations, like Babbage’s mechanical notation; or broader reflections, like Chambers’ Vestiges; or even some form of ‘mathematical poetry’.
Lovelace certainly had many advantages in pursuing her scientific interests: access to education and books; talent and ambition; support from husband and mother; and wealth and social standing. The greatest obstacle may have been a lack of mentors to work with her as intellectual equals, offering criticism as well as the flattery due to a countess; and reconciling her talent and ambition with her health problems, at a time when it was widely believed that good health was essential for mathematical exertion.
And, of course, Middlemarch was written by a woman who must have lived some of those same frustrations.
Yes, although Eliot’s own life story was one of defying convention, in a way that Lovelace did not, for whatever reasons. Did she and Ada Lovelace ever meet? They were about the same age, but it seems unlikely. Did Lovelace meet the somewhat older Mary Shelley? It’s circumstantially possible, but there is no evidence.
I was interested that you thought the idea her mother had focused her on mathematics and taken her away from poetry had been overblown because, actually, it strikes me—from what you said about the intellectual environment of the time and also knowing a bit about the Romantic poets—that the idea that poetry and scientific discovery were antagonistic areas of activity would have been a totally bewildering distinction to people in that period.
Exactly. Coleridge was fascinated by mathematics. Shelley was obsessed with the powers of electricity, and that’s central to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Robert Southey and Humphrey Davy were friends.
Lovelace wrote to her mother, “Will you give me poetical science?” It’s tantalising that only a page of the letter survives, so we don’t know the date or context. The phrase has been used to re-enforce sexist stereotypes, playing up Lovelace’s supposed imaginative and poetical contribution to the 1843 paper, and discounting her technical and mathematical ability. For intellectuals at the time, like Lovelace, there wasn’t much of a contradiction.
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org