back to article Quite contrary Somerville: Behind the Ada Lovelace legend

Ada Lovelace is a compellingly romantic figure, irresistible in today’s age of equal geeky opportunities. The daughter of "mad, bad and dangerous to know" Lord Byron, her mathematics-loving mother Annabella Milibanke purportedly beat the poet out of her with relentless studies in science, maths and logic. A beauty enthralled …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Ada Lovelace day

    Need more Boffins.

    1. Alister

      Re: Ada Lovelace day

      I love that the link contains the word b01ngs

  2. Ru

    Grace Hopper

    could have taken her in a fight.

    1. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

      Re: Grace Hopper

      Emmy Noether could take them both out, together.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Thumb Up

        Re: Emmy Noether

        I'd never heard of her - ta muchly for the link! but rather than see them in a fight I'd rather all three together took out some other cretins (I have a list...)

        And depressing as ever to see from that wiki link that her career and contribution as a German citizen was terminated by the criminal idiocy of the Nazis. Even today one can hear claims that echo the ideological lunacy that lies behind cries such as "Aryan students want Aryan mathematics and not Jewish mathematics." (surely it must be clear to all but the most cretinous that pure mathematics above all other intelligent pursuits lies beyond politicial interpretations?)

        1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

          "Aryan students want Aryan mathematics and not Jewish mathematics"

          Unwise - especially if Jewish Mathematics kicks Austrian 99-percenter ass. On the other hand, Nazis were interested in retaining "jewish" Heinz Haber [famous for applying gas warfare for the benefit of the Kaiser somewhat earlier] or even on pilfering smelly ideology from "jewish" philosophers. Very practical people, those Nazis, in a "bully who failed at any original thought" way.

          Such things happen in ideologically oriented regimes all the time. Einstein's Relativity was no-go era in the Soviet Union for a long time and later Norbert Wiener's 'Cybernetics' went straight to the 'secret archives' as being incompatible with Marxism ("Cybernetics serves the reactionaries of bourgeois society and idealistic philosphy" - 'Problems of Philosophy', 1953) were no-go areas in the Soviet Union for a long time.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: "Heinz Haber [famous for applying gas warfare..."

            I think you mean Fritz Haber (1868 - 1934).

            Heinz Haber (1913 - 1990) did a lot for the "popularization" (in the best possible sense) of science in post-WW2 Western Germany.

            1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

              Re: "Heinz Haber [famous for applying gas warfare..."

              Uh... yeah. How could I confuse.. I think that Alzheimer thing running in the family is activating. Oh shit.

      2. tony2heads

        Re: Grace Hopper

        Anita Borg would have assimilated her

    2. Admiral Grace Hopper

      Re: Grace Hopper

      Hell yeah.

    3. Dr Paul Taylor

      Re: Grace Hopper

      I hadn't heard of Grace Hopper (1906-92) before, so thank you for bringing her to our attention.

      However, I would point out that she had two circumstantial advantages over Ada Lovelace (1815-52): She lived a full life during an age when computing technology of sorts had become available. Ada could only speculate about the possibilities of a machine that was never realised and was cut off in the prime of life by cancer.

  3. John Styles

    As I say every year

    Why might the steampunk croud prefer Countess Ada Lovelace over Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper? Hmm. Countess, Rear Admiral, Countess, Rear Admiral.

    See also Babbage vs Hollerith - things that actually were made and commercially successful are much more glamorous than things that weren't - otherwise people would be dressing up as 1910s CTR salesmen - DarkSuitWhiteShirtPolishedShoesPunk doesn't have the same ring to it.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: As I say every year

      Because, yawn, the steampunk crowd go in for an imagined world in which electricity didn't happen and so like the Difference Engine, while Grace Hopper worked with electromechanical and electronic computers. Nothing at all to do with titles.

      We should be far more interested in why the scientific and mathematical establishment spent such a long time keeping women down despite the Victorian examples. When I got to University my supervisor was being taunted with calls of "Nobel for Jo Bell!" owing to his perceived failure to give her sufficient credit on the pulsar paper, nearly a century and a half after Babbage gave Ada due credit for her work.

      1. John Styles

        Re: As I say every year

        Well, yes, obviously, clearly I needed to spell things out in more detail with less shorthand... OK, then, why do people in the 'geek community' prefer people who failed to actually achieve ever much, over people who actually achieved real things in the messy real world? I think you are naive to think that the Countess vs Rear Admiral thing i.e. some vicarious imagining of what it would have been like to be one of the aristocracy in a stratified society isn't part of it.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: why do people in the 'geek community' prefer people who failed ...

          Because they failed wearing Victorian clothes? And wearing Victorian-style clothes is more the point of the exercise than is the bolted-on "tech" aspect?

        2. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

          Re: As I say every year

          > over people who actually achieved real things in the messy real world

          Hah. Who remembers Georg and Edvard Scheutz who - contrary to the perfectionist Babbage - actually built working difference engines - 3 of them?

          Even their Wikipedia page is crummy.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: As I say every year

      throw in Byron, attack of measles, affairs, a failed gambling syndicate, difficult relations with her extended family - why wouldn't Ada be more interesting?

    3. tony2heads


      by association with another Lovelace

  4. Neil Barnes Silver badge


    Didn't she make a film that was famous for a while? Or am I thinking of someone else?

    (yes, the raincoat if you'd be so kind!)

    1. John Styles

      Re: Lovelace?

      Supposedly David Gelernter named his coordination language Linda after her, by analogy with Ada being named after Ada Lovelace.

      A fine upstanding guy and an ornament to the computing profession, have a look at his Wikipedia article.

  5. disgruntled yank


    “The IT industry uses Ada as a kind of mascot to disguise what is really a bad situation for women in the field.”

    I have a hard time making any sense out of this statement. As far as I can tell, the disguise isn't working--nobody seems to think that women are in a great situation, whatever explanations they may provide for this--and practically nobody outside the avionics community thinks about Ada, the countess or the language, more than a couple of times a year.

    Next up: the Navy uses JOVIAL to disguise what is really a bad situation for extroverts in the field.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      ''Dr. King agreed that mathematics kept sexual longings at bay.''

      > the Navy uses JOVIAL to disguise what is really a bad situation for gays in the field.

      Fixed for you.

      In truth [follow the link to Tracy Kidder's review, it's a good read] Dorothy Stein's statement was made in 1985. We have come some ways since then, although the complaining goes on.

      In another truth, we love our mascots! Now, can I have an Ada Lovelace Action Figurine, please. No, not the US ones that are 'Made In China', they suck, the Japanese ones. Not, not Sheldon!! ARRRGH!!

    2. Naughtyhorse

      Re: oh?

      1 word



    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: oh?

      JOVIAL inspired me to create a real time kernel running on 8086 called BOVRIL - my own version of a realtime industrial language. Sadly, outside the department it had to be called IRTOS V1.

  6. Magnus Ramage

    Recognition of Mary Somerville

    She did at least have an Oxford college named after her (albeit posthumously), which is better going than a programming language that's now hardly used outside the military.

    Proper recognition of women in the history of science is very difficult. I wrote a book a few years ago on the key figures in systems & cybernetics. Despite a lot of agonising, we were only able to include 3 out of 30 who were women. That wasn't because we didn't try, it just reflected the sexist history. It may also have reflected our own biases, of course.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: Recognition of Mary Somerville

      > better going

      Not sure whether all that naming can be totally ordered, but if you want to go down that road I actually prefer a live language than a random building.

      > a programming language that's now hardly used outside the military

      Really! What are all these safety-criticial systems written in then? Futzy C and its bastard offpsrings? Must be all those fresh graduates full of illusions regarding their mad hacker skills.

      For what it's worth: Ada on Place 15 for general purpose programming.

  7. Ed 13

    Causes need figure heads

    So Ada Lovelace may not have quite been the genius she is alluded to have been, but causes need figure heads and she fills that role nicely. So concentrate on the cause, not on the quibbling about who would be the best icon.

    1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Re: Causes need figure heads

      I think the cause suffers if she is just a figure head. Fortunately, we have the likes of Faraday and Babbage to speak up for her. Unlike the modern day revisionists, they actually knew her and they were demonstrably top-flight scientists themselves, so if they reckon she was in their league then I'll settle for that.

  8. Peter Simpson 1

    I have heard

    Ada was better at maths and programming, than she was at playing the ponies and the roulette wheel.

    //perhaps statistics wasn't her thing?

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Behind Every famous woman...

    ... There is a pile of neglected laundry.

    JOKE!!! (Not sexist really).

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Re: Behind Every famous woman...

      ...there should be somebody less able than her sorting out that laundry, so that her gifts can be realised to the full!

      1. Captain DaFt

        Re: Behind Every famous woman...

        The real problem is, that behind every woman trying to be succesful is a mother and mother-in-law screaming, "When are you going to settle down and raise a family!?"

        1. Dazed and Confused

          Re: Behind Every famous woman...

          Sadly behind any successful women is a crowd of others with their claws out.

          Back in the 80s HP ran some job ads looking for support engineers. The feminist readers of The Grauniad went up in arms because they used a picture of one of the Engineers from the support centre, only the feminists could accept that it could be a Engineer in the pictures, so they must have used a model. Duh.

  10. Tim Parker

    "She invented the use of variables in algebra"

    Eh ? Marvellous she may be, but that's such an odd statement I think it surpasses even 'wrong'....

  11. Anonymous Coward

    " is Somerville’s example that they will ultimately follow..."

    Sadly not, as proved by every unreadable Wikipedia page on the subject of anything to do with maths.

  12. Oninoshiko

    Rear Admiral Hopper vs Countess Lovelace

    Why compair? Both have highly respectable accomplishments, and should be honored. We should remember both, and stand them up as examples for young ladies who want to pursue math and science.

    Now if we can just properly ostracize the bad apples who insist on using inaccurate gender stereotypes at conferences (I'm looking at you, RMS).

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    * PUNCHED cards

    They are cards that have been PUNCHED.

    An action which happened in the past, therefore we use the past tense.

    How is it possible to be so stupid that you can't grasp that?

    1. dajames

      Re: * PUNCHED cards

      They are cards that have been PUNCHED.

      Punched cards are cards that have been punched, yes. I confess that I also use the term for cards that have not yet been punched -- they know their fate!

      However, I can't take exception to the use of "punch cards" for cards that are designed to be punched, whether or not they've been punched yet. It's American English, I've no doubt of that, but it gets the idea across.

      Of course, in the UK we would use a properly gerundival form: "punching cards". Not cards that punch, but cards that are for punching.

      That's the way we do it!

  14. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
    Thumb Down

    The stupid is you!

    "A punched card, punch card, IBM card, or Hollerith card is a piece of stiff paper..."

    The German have only one way to call it though: "Lochkarte"

  15. history

    Turing too

    Alan Turing was also incorrectly credited for a number of 'firsts':

  16. David Pollard

    Chauvinist nonsense

    The 'scientific historians' who denigrated Ada Lovelace's achievements seem to have a very poor appreciation of science. I rather doubt that they know much in the way of mathematics either. It is only necessary to read the notes to her translation to realise that besides being able to write with a rare clarity the Countess of Lovelace also had a deep understanding of the basics of computing; clearly outlining, for just one example, the essential differences between program and data.

    I think we need to persuade Lewis to stump up enough luncheon vouchers to cover Verity Stob's expenses to have a word with them. Scientific historians indeed.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      "But my dear, have you ever THOUGHT what would happen if your machine PRINTED ITS OWN CARDS?"

      > the essential differences between program and data...

      Ah, but things become far more interesting when you notice that there IS NO ESSENTIAL DIFFERENCE. That's when computer science starts in earnest and you fire up your Lisp interpreter.

      This is a batch-processing calculator - one program acting on one input - and it is being developed by coming at it from the engineering side of things, not from the theoretical side. There is an allusion to the looping construct: "By the introduction of the system of backing into the Jacquard-loom itself, patterns which should possess symmetry, and follow regular laws of any extent, might be woven by means of comparatively few cards.... This process may obviously be repeated any number of times." Evidently she makes no distinction between what the machine would be able to do when capable of FOR loops - and what the machine would be able to do when capable of WHILE loops. Might she have developed these ideas later? Who knows...

      1. David Pollard

        Re: "But my dear, have you ever THOUGHT what would happen if your machine PRINTED ITS OWN CARDS?"

        It seems that Countess Lovelace may indeed have considered such a possibility: She jests:

        "The operating mechanism can even be thrown into action independently of any object to operate upon (although of course no result could then be developed)."

        Clearly she forsees that the engine's outputs may be other than merely numerical:

        "Again, it might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine."

        Doesn't the first part of Gôdel's Incompleteness Theorem set out to prove that this sort of "mutual fundamental relationship" is indeed logically valid?

        As for the suggestion that the analytic engine is "a batch-processing calculator", she writes:

        "The bounds of arithmetic were however outstepped the moment the idea of applying the cards had occurred; and the Analytical Engine does not occupy common ground with mere 'calculating machines'. It holds a position wholly its own; and the considerations it suggests are most interesting in their nature."

        It remains as an exercise for the reader to find her descriptions of loops. I found two in the notes quite easily. And I find the text awesome.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Hedy Lamarr gets my vote

    Here is a list of women in computing.

    Hedy could give Ada a run for her money in the romantic heroine with intellect race.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Or even here....

  19. Tim Walker
    Thumb Up

    2DGoggles FTW!

    Many thanks for linking to Sydney Padua's fabulous "Babbage and Lovelace" Web comics at the start - I'm holding out for a printed anthology of those sometime... :-)

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Behind every famous woman there stands ... another woman

    yeah, I saw that in a film and it was great

  21. Marco van de Voort

    Lovelace day: general beta science or math/computing.

    What struck me when I read the site of Ada Lovelace day is that it doesn't pretend to be just about mathematics or computing. It seems to target more beta science and engineering as a whole.

    And if I then have to pick a female figurehead, then my vote goes to Marie Curie (-Skłodowska), not Lady Ada.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nice article El Reg

    I never knew any of this really. Thank you El Reg, and your commenters for enlightening on lots here.

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