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!

What I Want To Be When I Grow Up

There were two good posts on careers in the blogosphere recently. Ross Mayfield advises future entrepreneurs in a piece entitled “Budding Entrepreneurship.” I liked all of his points, but my favorites were:    (15C)

  • Change your major.    (15D)
  • Take responsibility beyond your years.    (15E)
  • Have fun with failure.    (15F)
  • Do different.    (15G)
  • Be a businessperson.    (15H)

Alex Pang offers a much different, much more personal take in his essay, “Journeyman: Getting Into and Out of Academe.” Alex’s post resonated strongly with me, but before I talk about his essay, I first have to commemorate this moment. We haven’t actually crossed paths physically before (as far as I know; we both happen to be frequent patrons of Cafe Borrone, so it may have happened), but we’ve crossed paths spiritually in many ways, and this will mark the first time we cross paths online.    (15I)

I studied History of Science in college and have continued to pursue my interests in that field in small ways. One of those was an extension school class at Stanford I took in 1998. The class was on postmodernism, but Tim Lenoir, who taught the class, soon learned of my other interests and showed me a project he was involved with. It was called the MouseSite, and it was an online oral history of the mouse (the device, not the rodent). Alex was also involved with that project, and his name stuck with me because his middle name is Korean.    (15J)

Fast forward five years. I accidentally discovered his blog several months ago via GeoURL, and I’ve been enjoying his entries ever since. (I’ve bookmarked at least two of his past entries with the intention of blogging about them, but never got around to doing so.)    (15K)

I didn’t follow the same career path Alex did, but I did some of the same soul-searching that he describes in his essay. I have always loved scholarship, and to this day, I long for the days I used to spend lost in the stacks at the library, taking pleasure in all of the things I didn’t know. As brilliant and as diverse and as intellectual as the Bay Area is, it still does not come close to the experience I had in college of being immersed in scholarship and surrounded by scholars.    (15L)

The flip-side of this is that I’ve also always been interested in entrepreneurship and social change, neither of which are commonly associated with academia. Resolving this schizophrenia has not been easy. Pang suggests that the institutional language (at least in academia) is so narrow, we don’t even know how to think or talk about careers that deviate at all from the “path.”    (15M)

I chose to work in the “real world” and pursue my scholarly interests on the side. This was possible from the beginning because Jon Erickson — the editor-in-chief at Dr. Dobb’s Journal, my first employer, and a good friend — strongly encouraged this. As a curious side note, one of my responsibilities at DDJ was putting together its special issues on software careers, which included writing editorials. Of the five that I wrote, four were about the importance of spreading your wings and extending your learning outside of your given field. My favorite was a piece entitled, “Reading, ‘Riting, and R-Trees.”    (15N)

I loved my work and the people at DDJ, but I eventually left because it only took me 80 percent of where I wanted to go. The boom made it a great time to explore, which I did as an independent consultant for four years. Then the boom became the bust, and I had to start thinking seriously again about what I wanted to do.    (15O)

I did two things simultaneously: I applied to a few Ph.D. programs in History of Science and I started Blue Oxen Associates. I did the latter with the belief that my (and other academically-oriented people’s) skills and interests were valuable in convergent ways and that there was an opportunity to create something that took advantage of this. I was directly inspired by organizations like Institute for the Future (which currently employs Alex).    (15P)

Last spring, a few weeks before we threw our launch party in San Francisco, I received an acceptance letter from one of the programs to which I applied. I decided not to go back to school, a decision that was more gut-wrenching than most people probably realize. Blue Oxen was progressing the way I had hoped it would progress, and a lot of people at that point had begun to jump on the bandwagon. I couldn’t give up on the vision at that point, and more importantly, I couldn’t give up on the people who supported me and were counting on me.    (15Q)

We’re still progressing, but we’re also still several years away from my larger vision for the company. I probably shouldn’t admit this here, given how I rant about being action-oriented and changing the world, but part of that vision has me sitting happily in a corner of the library, following some obscure and fascinating train of thought, and then joining fellow researchers afterwards for coffee and speculation about the life, the universe, and everything.    (15R)