March 8, 2017 » 11:28 am

Misogyny and the Curious Case of Ada Lovelace

In honor of International Women’s Day, I’d like to honor two women, and I’d like to share a strange story about misogyny. The first is Ada Lovelace, the remarkable daughter of Lord Byron, who published the very first computer program in 1843. Because I have many friends and colleagues in technology, I often see Ada’s name crop up in various social media channels on this day. I also occasionally get surprised emails from friends, who start reading about her work, see references to some guy named, “Eugene Eric Kim,” and wonder if that person could possibly be me.

Yup, it’s me. In 1999, I co-authored a piece about Ada in Scientific American with the brilliant Betty Alexandra Toole, who is the second person I’d like to honor. I am exceptionally proud of the piece, because Betty and I cleared up several myths about Ada there. I also found a bug in Ada’s program, and am the first person to have identified and published it, 156 years after the fact!

I studied history of science in college, and while I was primarily interested in understanding scientific revolutions, I was irresistably drawn to the history of computers and computer science. Shortly after graduating, I came across Betty’s extensive and definitive scholarship on Ada and emailed her about it. Betty was warm and delightful, and it turned out she was friends with my colleague, the inimitable Michael Swaine, and his partner, Nancy Groth, and that she lived in the Bay Area. We became friends, and we talked often about her work.

One of the curious things I learned about Betty was how many people seemed to want to discredit Ada’s contributions to computer science. I found it interesting and weird, but I didn’t delve too much into it myself. I more or less trusted Betty’s scholarship, but I still reserved the right to be skeptical myself. If other historians were discounting Ada’s contributions, there was probably a reason for it, right?

Then, in 1998, Betty forced me to confront my skepticism. She wanted to write a popular article about Ada’s work, and she asked me if I would co-author it with her. I said I would, but that I needed to look at the data myself before I could do it with her. Betty not only agreed, this was her plan all along. She had copies of Ada’s original notes, and she knew that I could understand the technical parts.

So I spent a few months carefully reading through Ada’s notes, double-checking her math, and also reading the scholarly work that disputed her contributions. I concluded that those claims were baseless.

Ada first met Charles Babbage (the inventor of the first computer) when she was 17. She published the first computer program when she was 27. I was 23 when I first read her notes, so I tried to remember what I was like when I first started learning algebra, then I tried to adjust my expectations based on the state of education at the time. All of that was largely unnecessary. Ada was a competent mathematician and a skillful learner. At minimum, she would have been in the same advanced classes as me in high school, and she likely would have been ahead of me. Moreover, she would have argued with me often and put me in my place. She was clearly proud, independent, and stubborn.

But she wasn’t a mathematical prodigy, either, or a technical genius like Babbage. Her genius was in recognizing the brilliance and potential of Babbage’s invention, not just from a pie-in-the-sky perspective (Babbage himself was skilled in spinning yarns), but from a down-and-dirty, here’s-how-it-actually-works perspective. She was both a visionary and a hacker, a century ahead of her time.

Here’s what Betty and I wrote in our article:

We cannot know for certain the extent to which Babbage helped Ada on the Bernoulli numbers program. She was certainly capable of writing the program herself given the proper formula; this is clear from her depth of understanding regarding the process of programming and from her improvements on Babbage’s programming notation. Additionally, letters between Babbage and Ada at the time seem to indicate that Babbage’s contributions were limited to the mathematical formula and that Ada created the program herself. While she was working on the program, Ada wrote to Babbage, “I have worked incessantly, & most successfully, all day. You will admire the Table & Diagram extremely. They have been made out with extreme care, & all the indices most minutely & scrupulously attended to.”

The importance of Ada’s choosing to write this program cannot be overstated. Babbage had written several small programs for the Analytical Engine in his notebook in 1836 and 1837, but none of them approached the complexity of the Bernoulli numbers program. Because of her earlier tutelage, Ada was at least familiar with the numbers’ properties. It is possible that Ada recognized that a Bernoulli numbers program would nicely demonstrate some of the Analytical Engine’s key features, such as conditional branching. Also, because Menabrea had alluded to the Bernoulli numbers in his article, Ada’s program tied in nicely with her translation of Menabrea.

What strikes me, almost 20 years after I wrote that article with Betty, is how often people continue to question Ada’s contributions. Why would they do so? The scholarship is actually not extensive. Only a few historians have actually looked at the source material, and the same ones (including Betty and me) are cited over and over again. There is no smoking gun suggesting she is not responsible for her own work, and the evidence in her favor is considerable. Why is there any doubt? More importantly, why is the doubt so often propagated?

I have two hypotheses. The first is that people are lazy. Most people never bother looking at the historical pieces, such as the one I cowrote with Betty, much less the source material.

Second, most people are biased (consciously or not) against women. If Ada had been a man, and if the historical record were exactly the same, I have no doubt that far fewer people would be questioning Ada’s contributions. Remember, I fell into this category too. When Betty first told me about the controversy, even though I trusted her, I assumed the source data would be far less conclusive than it was. Truthfully, if I weren’t already friends with Betty, I probably would have just assumed that the skeptics were correct.

Betty, of course, understood all of this far more viscerally than I did. We talked about this extensively back then, and while I thought I understood, my understanding is far more deep and nuanced today. I know that my mere presence on the byline of the article we co-wrote (and that Betty deserves far more credit for) automatically boosted the credibility of our work, and that this had nothing to do with my reputation in the field (which was and deservedly continues to be non-existent).

It’s sobering, but I think there’s something heartening about these current times, despite all of the very real challenges we continue to face. People are far more conscious about unconscious bias — whether it’s about gender, race, sexuality, height, weight, age, fashion, whatever — than ever before. If we can acknowledge it, we can also do something about it.

So here’s to Ada Lovelace, badass and worthy hero to women and men everywhere! And here’s to my friend, Betty Alexandra Toole! Happy International Women’s Day!

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