I have received a response to my argument about Ada Lovelace being the “The most overrated figure in the history of computing” (first video result for Google searches of “ada lovelace” – booh yeah!"). This blog post is a counter-response.
A lot of your argument seems to revolve around making the case that Ada Lovelace (also known as Augusta Ada King) was a talented and intelligent woman. I agree on this, especially when you consider the limitations of her time.
However, none of this matters. All that matters is whether the massive accreditation that is given to her as the “first programmer” is true, and I contend that it is not. Your argument was essentially one of admiration, an admiration that a woman in a society that did not offer women the opportunities that ours does. I understand the sentiment but such emotion can also cloud one’s own judgement. When people become emotionally invested in an idea then they lose objectivity on it. Ada has been described as a “prophet” . You can buy T-shirts entitled “Heroine: Ada Lovelace” . One does not have to search very far to find articles describing with glee that the first programmer was a woman . Frankly, I feel that the promotion of Ada Lovelace has more to do with political correctness that objective fact.
Some of the descriptions of Ada pass from “creative” to “egregious” take for example the following paragraph:
Computers have had a massive influence our lives over the last 60 years, but they were actually first invented nearly 200 years ago. And one of the pioneers was a female mathematician called Ada Lovelace, who created one of the first computer programs and understood something of the enormous potential of computers.
Ada Lovelace was in no way a pioneer. She made no great contributions to mathematics that I know of, her noteworthy accomplishment was a translation of a paper by Menabrea which included a program that she did not wrote, she did not participate in any way to the design of Charles Babbage’s computational machines and I would be sceptical as to whether Charles Babbage himself could be described as a pioneer. Charles Darwin was ahead of his time and his story is a heartbreaking tale of ambition against the mechanical limitations of the time. Babbage didn’t complete either of his machines (prototypes of the analytical engine exist), and it wasn’t until the twentieth century until the techniques of the time could create computers as we know them. We can admire Babbage’s achievements but he didn’t kick-start a revolution.
The main piece of evidence behind the “prophet” claim is her writings that computers may be used for things such as composing music and graphics in the future. This is indeed prescient and impressive when compared to Babbage’s own small minded vision of his machines being used for mathematics only. Ada Lovelace provided encouragement to Babbage and realised the potential of his machines right away, but what of the main claim?
Lord Byron's daughter, Augusta Ada Byron, (Countess of Lovelace) was Charles Babbage's collaborator on the 'difference engine'. She wrote the first computer program to calculate Bernoulli numbers. The programming language ADA is named for her. She was a longtime collaborator after 1833.
Charles Babbage wrote the program for her.
In a series of letters between 1842 and 1843, the pair collaborated on seven notes, the combined length of which was three times longer than the actual paper. In one note Ada prepared a table of execution for a program that Babbage wrote to calculate the Bernoulli numbers. In another, she wrote about a generalized algebra engine that could perform operations on symbols as well as numbers. Lovelace was perhaps the first to grasp the more general goals of Babbage’s machine, and some consider her the world's first computer programmer.
I then suggested that she add some notes to Menabrea's memoir, an idea which was immediately adopted. We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced: I suggested several but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process.
Let’s all grow up for one minute. Are we to believe that Babbage, who had conceived of the difference engine years before Ada got involved, had not written programs for it? That doesn’t pass the smell test.
In researching this piece, I found a brilliant video of Doron Swade. For those not turned on by the subject matter, fast-forward to 36:25 to see a brilliant summary of Ada Lovelace that I agree with completely.
The Ada Lovelace affair is a case of facts not mattering in the face of an agenda. If you care about the truth, then you should correct those who misrepresent history for their personal emotional gains.
 http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/Ada_and_the_First_Computer.pdf. pp81
Posted on: Thursday, July 08, 2010 1:57 AM