October 14, 2014

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!


Ada's Algorithm jacketToday is International Ada Lovelace Day, a celebration of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). It’s also the publication day for Ada’s Algorithm by James Essinger.

There are all sorts of events in honor of Lovelace and her legacy: an opera called An Evening With Ada from the 52nd St. Project in New York, an event at Maker’s Academy in London, lectures at the Royal Institution at the Ri Lecture Theatre, an exhibit at The Micro Museum in Ramsgate, UK.

Who is Lovelace? Glad you asked. She was arguably the first computer programmer, in 1834, and the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron. Though she didn’t know Byron well, her famous father cast a shadow over her life and inspired her creativity. When Ada was twelve, she was obsessed with bird flight. She sketched design after design for a “steam-driven, mechanical flying horse.” Her mother set up a strict tutoring schedule, with an emphasis on mathematics and music, which later fueled her intellectual work.

Ada and her incredible headdress via Wikimedia Commons

Lovelace and her incredible headdress via Wikimedia Commons

In 1833, Lovelace met Charles Babbage for the first time. She was inspired by his Difference Engine, eager to expand upon his ideas. She and Babbage exchanged letters from June 10, 1835 to August 12, 1852. Just to give you a little perspective, it wasn’t until 1834 that the word “scientist” was coined by William Whewell. Ada referred to her work as “poetical science.”

In October 1842, Luigi Federico Menabrea published an article about Babbage’s Analytical Engine in Bibliotheque Universelle de Geneve. Lovelace translated it and added her own notes, about 20,000 words, to the 8,000 word piece. Published in 1843, her notes include a much deeper understanding of the potential for Babbage’s machine, including the suggestion that it was “capable of executing not merely arithmetical calculations, but even all those of analysis.”

Essinger argues that if anyone had understood the implications of her work in her lifetime, we could have started the digital age much sooner. You’ll have to read the book to understand the rest of her research.

In 1941, Alan Turing gave Lovelace credit for some of her remarkable ideas. In Lady Lovelace’s Objection, he expanded upon a line from her memoir, that machines cannot originate ideas; in her words, the Analytical Engine can only do what we ask it to perform.

It wasn’t easy for the women who came after Lovelace. Jean Jennings Bartik worked on the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (ENIAC), and in 1947, she was the head of the team that made it the first stored-program electronic computer. The women were not recognized for their achievement, she revealed in a speech in 2008:

They all went out to dinner at the announcement. We weren’t invited and there we were. People never recognized, they never acted as though we knew what we were doing. I mean, we were in a lot of pictures.

In 1952, Admiral Grace Hopper, a senior mathematician of the Eckert-Mauchley Computer Corporation, created an operational compiler. (A compiler essentially translates programs from one computer language to another, so that you can execute a program.) She was the third programmer on the first computer in the United States.

“I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it,” Hopper said. “They told me computers could only do arithmetic.” In her notes, Ada said that computers would someday be able to compose music. She, too, struggled to get her contemporaries to understand where their research might take them.

There’s a rich history of programming as “women’s work.” In 1967, Cosmopolitan ran a trend piece about women in tech:

cosmopolitan-april-1967-1-largeQuoted in there, though you’ll have to squint to read it, is a line from Hopper about programming:

It’s just like planning a dinner. You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it’s ready when you need it. Programming requires patience and the ability to handle detail. Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming.

So, to put it lightly, there was still a long way to go. Hopper quipped that we shouldn’t concentrate on building bigger computers, but building a few efficient programs. In 1979, the U.S. Department of Defense had a new programming “superlanguage” with a new name: Ada. The number of high-level programming languages dropped from 450 in 1983 to thirty-seven by 1996, thanks to Ada.

The number of women graduating with degrees in computer science was at an all-time high in 1985, at 35%. But it has declined in decades since.

Google Doodle Ada Lovelace

A Google Doodle by Kevin Laughlin was posted in Ada’s honor on what would have been her 197th birthday. Google prides itself in having a large percentage of female employees, around 17%. In a blog post, Google VP Megan Smith and Senior Manager Lynette Webb wrote:

Too often, the contributions of women in science and technology are left untold, and to fade from view. While Ada’s story has been rediscovered, many others remain little known. That’s why initiatives such as Ada Lovelace Day are so valuable, as a catalyst for raising the profile of women in science, past and present.

Lovelace’s stirring research has caught the attention of many creative women in the last few years. Sydney Padua runs a webcomic series (and soon, a book!) called The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. Kate Beaton honored Ada in Hark! a vagrant, summarizing her as “famous for doing some computery things… something I still don’t completely grasp, probably because my parents seemed not to mind if I read a poem now and then.”

While women make up 47% of the workforce, they only comprise about 25% of the tech industry. According to The Ada Initiative, just 2-5% of open source developers are women. The bias is especially obvious at the executive level: only three of the tech CEOs in the Fortune 500 are female. You can read more about sexism in modern tech in this article by Ann Friedman (with a shout-out to our neighbors in Dumbo, Etsy).

Organizations like Advancing Women in STEM and Tech Savvy Women are working to improve these statistics. We need to have a frank conversation about the challenges and the steps our companies should take to improve these stats.

As Ariel Schwartz reported for Fast Company, “more diverse companies breed more creative outcomes.” Today is a day to examine the rich history of women in tech, from Walter Isaacson’s latest to this remarkable polemic from James Essinger, and reflect on our place in it.



Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.