In honor of Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer

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The first programmable computer – if it had been built – would have been a gigantic, mechanical thing with gears, levers, and punch cards. This was the vision of the analytical engine devised by British inventor Charles Babbage in 1837. While Babbage is credited with designing the machine, it may have been his friend. Ada lovelace who best understood its promise and the potential that computers would one day realize. Daughter of the romantic poet Lord Byron, Lovelace was a talented mathematician and intellectual who translated an Italian article on the analytical engine and supplemented it with detailed notes on the capabilities of the machine. In those notes, she not only explained the engine more clearly than Babbage was able to, but she also described an algorithm that he could run, which is often considered the world’s first computer program.

Lovelace died very early in her friendship with Babbage, and the analytical engine was never built except in the pages of The thrilling adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Pantheon, April 2015), a graphic novel by artist and animator Sydney Padua. In the history of Padua, the two friends complete the gargantuan engine and become an eccentric and technical crime fighting duo. American scientist spoke to Padua about the importance of Ada Lovelace Day—Celebrated every second Tuesday in October — and Padua’s own experience as a woman working in the technological field of digital animation.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

What attracted you about the story of Lovelace and Babbage?
It was an accident. I was in a pub with my friend Suw Charman, who started Lovelace Day, when she suggested I do a blog post. I didn’t really see myself as a woman of technology – I worked on computers, but reluctantly. I did a very short biographical comic [on Lovelace and Babbage] in a few evenings, and then there was so much pickup. I then became fascinated by the story and completely fell in love with Lovelace and Babbage. From there, he just took his own life.

What is the idea behind Lovelace Day?
I am not connected to Lovelace Day formally. But having a day when you flood the internet with blog posts about women do cool stuff [in science and technology], you create a shift in perception: there are tons of women doing all kinds of things, so [women will think], “I’m not the weirdo.”

How does Ada Lovelace’s story relate to women in science today?
It is difficult to walk straight and follow the perfect path, which 19th century women had to do. Lovelace reminds me of modern women and their relationship to science in that she is conflicted about it, [thinking,] “Do I want to do humanities or do I want to study mathematics?” She was acutely aware of her quirk as a woman in mathematics; knowing that she wasn’t supposed to do math was psychologically very difficult for her. And I think a lot of women can relate to this feeling of having to do everything right and being self-aware in science.

Have you felt this yourself as a computer science woman?
I think that might be the reason I have stayed away from computer animation for so long – you are hyperconscious in a way that makes the job very difficult. That feeling that you are not a native [and] a little in enemy territory. It’s subtle, but I think it’s still a very powerful force when you start to struggle.

Do you see things improving?
I teach animation. Every year I get more and more girls into my class and they absolutely kill it, not just in terms of animation, but also technology, rigging and so on. So this is a big turnaround in my field, which is incredibly encouraging.

You said you were reluctant to work on computers. What do you like about Babbage’s analytics engine?
It’s the abstraction of computers that I don’t really like. While I love the analytics engine because you can see every part of it and understand what it is doing. It’s just a much more intuitive way of looking at all of these concepts.

For example, I love barrels! Nobody talks about barrels [the mechanism that stores the machine’s programs], which to me is the most amazing thing. I like them because they’re clearly adapted from a music box or a barrel organ, with the pegs and everything, which is just great because Babbage had this famous war with the street musicians. I like the resonance there. And it’s just those smart, beautiful things where one card can get you through this whole very complicated sequence with dozens of levers. I think they are just delicious.

In modern times, Lovelace’s work is known as a forerunner of computer programs. Was she recognized during her lifetime?
The other day I actually found an obituary for an 1852 Canadian article that, extremely unusual for Lovelace’s obituaries, focused entirely on his article on the analytical engine. So I was pretty happy. Almost everyone was like “oh, Byron’s daughter” and didn’t even mention math.


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