Who is Ada?
Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, is no longer who she once was, 200 years ago. Time changes all famous people, especially cult personalities. Ada has become a modern icon for the digitizing world of science and literature.
For women, so commonly invisible in their daily lives, the path to fame is, as a rule, transgressing rules. Whenever visible, they are mostly notorious. In reading history we can scarcely see what famous women actually did with their lives. It is their misdeed, or some failure to perform, that we can generally see.
This applies especially to heroines and celebrities: women placed on a pedestal have a hard time climbing off it to relate their actual experience. Invisibility is a woman’s permanent condition, a method of survival, a gender’s way of life: like in the Purloined Letter story by Edgar Allan Poe, a hidden message is concealed by its very display.
Ada is our heritage souvenir, 200 years after her birthday. She is heavier than a gold medal, more mysterious than Nefertiti, a thought experimenter whose fantasy calculations have transformed the world like the work of Einstein. General computation is a stark reality, a revolutionary insight which took its own time to arrive after its conception by a woman.
Who else would think up such an unlikely thing, other than Ada Lovelace, the daughter of the poet Byron? It’s the proper work of a poet to give names to the unseen things in the world. And yet, living as a woman of science is not so easy as conceiving, thinking, writing, calculating, publishing. In those 200 years — or 36 years less, since Ada died young — the role of women in science has become more complex, not simpler.
In Ada’s day, women, when rarely accepted into the narrow circles of scientific societies, were accepted as popularizers, as teachers, as sympathetic advocates. Women of science were legitimated in that sociable way, intuitive, visionary and romantic, but were still superfluous in the serious male work of science and progress. A female propagandist can only be a source of wary respect when she becomes dangerous politically.
In our own time, I see Adas every day, in my life in technology art. I have outlived Ada, so I see what professional life is like for women who live in, or are placed on the fringes of, technology. Talented, geeky, bright, yet held back by the structures of a boys’ camaraderie when it comes to technological products: boys and their toys.
These talented women, as geekettes, as crazed women, as eccentric females, prefer to stay back, to conceal themselves, if they cannot perform in their own way, to their own ends. They do not know how to bargain with their creativity in the mainstreams of science or art. Their ideas are still intuitive and visionary, as Ada’s ideas were, when compared to the engineering plans of her colleague Charles Babbage.
Babbage was her good friend and they had a successful collaboration. They complemented each other and yet today, his work holds little mystery, while hers still does. Because there are yardsticks for measuring his scientific output — he tried to build a costly machine for a government, and he failed — but no yardstick for hers. She is in the domain of courtly fantasy for male authors, and a matter of hope and trust for women scientists.
Feminists analyze Ada’s famously absent father and her strongly biased mother, her constrained and yet peaceful private life as wife and mother. Her sexual life which ended in uterine fatal sickness: so feminine, so incurable, even today. Her uterus exploded from too much mathematics! Her contemporary misogynist doctor allegedly claimed that of her illness, and certainly it was common enough at that time to think that scientific knowledge was too much for female frailty to bear.
She bled to her death at the same age as her father, Lord Byron, who was bled to his death by incompetent doctors while struck with fever in Greece. Only, Lord Byron was courting his own death by fighting a foolish war, as an aggressive proud bossy male, while obedient Ada bore her children while diligently doing her calculus.
How did Ada escape her father’s shadow, his scandalous absence from her life, her mother’s clutching, overbearing presence? Through rigid lessons of hard science and flights of creative fantasy. Through computation: an endless perspective of thinking, creating, coding! A programmable machine that weaves numbers, with an intelligence that was artificial because it was a woman’s intelligence.
People like to indulge themselves in quarreling over the proper division of intellectual spoils between Lovelace, Babbage, Menabrea and others. The truth is that the Difference Engine was an abject failure, the Analytical Engine could not succeed even though Ada bravely offered to finance the machine. So her great idea of general-purpose computation remained dormant for many decades. Many women enter science only to find frustration. “A serious injustice and a scandalous waste of talent,” as Máire Geoghagan-Quinn, the European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, recently said about the stifled role of European women in science, innovation and research.
If Ada had never existed, we would have had to invent her, but she did exist, and it’s her modern myth as a digital heroine that we have invented. Certainly she was never “digital” even for a moment, but we are still standing on the shoulders of this attractively gowned and vivacious Victorian society hostess.
If Ada were alive today, I would certainly invite her to visit our “Internet of Women Things” group. IoWomenT is a recent attempt related to Casa Jasmina, a smart home of the future in Turin. I’m sure that the Countess of Lovelace would be quite helpful to an open-source effort, since she always was a friend to scientific enlightenment, and never one to rudely quarrel over worldly reputation or commercial advantage.
One of our goals is to create at least one connected smart IoT “Thing” from a woman’s point of view. Some thing that has never existed, something that women need, dream about and yet have never managed to technically manufacture. The open source Maker movement should certainly be capable of this: An Ada IoT object.
But what is it, what could it be? A sentimental memento? 3 d printed sculpture of her brain (Babbage’s brain was pickled, and is still available)? A analog brass computer-generated piece of music, because Ada doted on music? How could we, as modern women, act in her spirit, and not as the myth would have it?
Many things impress me about the mysterious Countess of Lovelace (who probably wouldn’t much like our impertinence in always calling her “Ada”). Her father, George Gordon, Lord Byron, I love in my own way (because I had a father story too). Also her feminist struggle with her authoritarian, invasive mother (same here again). People dwell on her arranged marriage and her supposed lovers (I don’t trust the gossip). Almost every woman can relate some similar problems and that’s fine, nobody is perfect, not even an aristocratic woman scientist.
What excites me about Ada is her lateral way of thinking, deducing, calculating. Because that imaginative freedom, the cognitive leaps to a good conclusion, are obvious from her surviving letters and notes. This is just what society still needs today from women. We never have enough of it: female genius rising from the cradle of constraint.
So I would invite her ladyship, the countess and scientist, to our IoWT workshop. Dressed contemporarily, to the extent she could manage (after all she is 143 years older than us, and given to corsets) she could participate in our open source CasaJasmina brainstorming, where we honk like geese in the fog. Listening politely, till she stands up screaming in her ladylike manner: I’ve got it! I know what we need to do!
Then she tells us her vision… And we just make it!