Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day to celebrate and encourage women in the fields of science and technology. The day is named after Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace, born Byron. (You can see why we just call her Ada Lovelace.) She was a brilliant mathematician, and the writer of what’s probably the first real computer program — it computed the Bernoulli series. At least according Charles Babbage, in correspondence to Michael Faraday, she was an “enchanted math fairy”. Not only a proto-coder, she wrote almost all of the existing documentation about Babbage’s computation engine. She’s a stellar example of a brilliant and unique individual. If you were looking for a superhero to represent women in science and tech, Ada’s a good pick.

In our minds, she gets stiff competition from Marie Curie. Curie did fundamental research on radioactivity, is one of two people with Nobel Prizes in two different sciences, and got to name the two elements that she discovered. 2011 was the Year of Marie Curie in France and Poland. She has her own year in addition to her own unit. Even Spiderman doesn’t have those radioactive super powers!

Don’t Need Another Hero?

But on a day dedicated to getting more women into the technical arts, it’s also a little bit daunting to pick Lovelace or Curie as a symbol. Are you ever going to have something that equals “first computer program” or “two Nobel Prizes” on your résumé? We aren’t. It’s great to have heroes, but maybe we need more than just heroes — we also need mentors.

If you’re seriously interested in getting more women in science and technology, this is one of the most thoughtful essays on the subject that we’ve read. The basic thesis is that while men overestimate their abilities, women often underestimate them. Women tend to do better with positive reinforcement, and can feel inadequate when comparing themselves against impossible ideals like becoming the next Marie Curie.

Hamilton, with the code that put us on the moon, had great mentors.

These are broad conclusions, to be sure, but they also fit stories that we’ve been told by female friends both in and out of academia. And if that argument holds water more generally, then the best advice for people in a position of mentoring promising students of any gender is to reassure them that it doesn’t actually take Curie’s single-minded genius to make a contribution to the body of scientific knowledge.

99.9% of scientists do the best they can with what they’ve got, and build up the sum total of human knowledge brick by brick. Nobody should be discouraged by the almost impossibility of becoming the next Einstein or Curie. If you’ve got a scientifically minded female student or daughter, point out what she’s good at, and let her know that that’s enough. And then see where it leads.

Lady Byron

Ada Lovelace’s father was Lord Byron, a romantic poet who had a melancholy streak a mile wide. When her father died, her mother noticed that Ada had talents in science and math and encouraged them vigorously — some say to counterbalance her father’s madness.

The point is, the young Ada Lovelace had talent and it was very actively fostered and encouraged by her mother, and then later Charles Babbage. She had good mentors to go along with her genius. That kind of support and encouragement ensured that Ada’s genius didn’t wither on the vine. Without the support of good mentors, who knows if Ada would have turned her attentions elsewhere, and the world would be a poorer place.

Mentoring the next generation in science, math, hacking, or whatever is one of the highest callings. Emphasizing the importance of mentorship in Ada Lovelace’s life shouldn’t detract from her superhero status at all, and doubling down on our efforts to bring up the next generation of superheroes is a fitting ideal on the day named after her. Who knows, that nerdy young woman you encourage today might just turn into the next Grace Hopper, Margaret Hamilton, Emmy Noether, Chien-Shiung Wu, or Rachel Carson. Or Ada Lovelace.

74 thoughts on “Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

  1. “Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace, born Byron. (You can see why we just call her Ada Lovelace.) ”

    Couldn’t get all that on a check.

    “The point is, the young Ada Lovelace had talent and it was very actively fostered and encouraged by her mother, and then later Charles Babbage. She had good mentors to go along with her genius. That kind of support and encouragement ensured that Ada’s genius didn’t wither on the vine.”

    I’m sure her place on the social ladder didn’t have anything to do with it.

    1. Given that 99.999% of other high society ladies of the time occupied themselves rather differently at the time, then while her social position gave her an “in” that lades of other strata would not have had it does not take away from the unusual nature of her achievements.

    2. It usually takes quite a lot of resources to sustain more abstract pursuits. Most art and philosophy would not have existed without wealth (the starving artist is a modern thing).

      We all stand on the shoulders of giants.

  2. I think Ada Lovelace is cool, super cool actually, but in context.
    She was aristocracy when being not meant little to no opportunity for higher learning or anything other than a lifetime of illiterate manual labor when those jobs were being eliminated but 100 years before the output was sufficient and the economy revised that trickle down was sufficient to replace those jobs with anything other than even worse Dickensian tragic servitude.
    To put in context around the time of her death the Irish great famine starved to death 1/3 of Irish people, 1/3 left for foreign lands, and 1/3 remained in occupied Ireland while the British Lords of the land and the Whig government enjoyed the profitable food exports form that same land.
    So Lady Lovelace was awesome as a person and someone to visit with time travel but in context was part of a terrible and uncaring ruling class.

    1. You can put it like that… you can also say that millions of privileged little white girls study in school today without lifting a finger to stop the genocide in Myanmar.

      1. To be fair there are the poor white girls too who also loose opportunity, I am talking the more universal privilege of wealth. And especially if that wealth is made from encouraging and then profiting from the conflict while spilling the blood of the underclasses as the British aristocracy was, they transported concentrated opportunity upwards in the social order as is normal.
        But if people in Myanmar or anywhere had equal opportunity for education all of humanity would all have greater opportunity and wealth because of improved outcomes when all of the Lovelaces without setting good education aside for only the wealthy and powerful children, with universal opportunity for attempting greatness the best of the formerly unimportant can also be allowed to contribute fully to the overall wealth of the humanity instead of say wasting Curie, Einstein, or Turing mining coal so they can afford food.
        Many of the wealthier countries have made higher education and sometimes even the life support structures around that free or with easy to obtain financing for but this is a small and shrinking percentage of the world’s population.
        With wealth you can do the free hanging around and networking following an undergrad degree or hiring the tutors during college that makes your chances of graduating and finding a work in the field your dreams take you possible.
        Take the very simplistic model of Hollywood, why do mostly rich kids become famous actors?
        They can survive the wait in an expensive town until they are discovered not to mention paying to attend skills building and networking events and hiring a good connected agent, poor people despite having leveraged a good education don’t have the hanging around finding work power, so they don’t get the best jobs but settle for what they need to survive once the cash runs out. Not all wealthy kids are able to become skilled in their field, but a far higher percentage can survive long enough fighting to get their dream position no matter that they are not even close to being the best, but the best talent was wasted.

        1. this was a very dark picture, instead you must consider the wealth like a good opportunity, just like the long runner considers his massive legs or when you have a high brain-power or you have a nice face etc. so if you say nay for the rich kids then you also need to say nay for all the other opportunities people might have…

          1. I am sorry I gave the impression that the wealthy should be discriminated against, I do not believe we need to remove opportunity to succeed from anyone ever, that is a terrible loss to humanity. It is just that the wealthy, their children(and perhaps those with a very reliable patron) by having access to reliable support, not fearing starvation and homelessness among other needs, have a massive natural advantage when competing with those who too often must drop out or never compete in order to find a ‘real job’ to eat.
            I believe we need to find a way to give everyone an equal and rich opportunity to improve the world and to contribute, we also need to work to improve conditions for those who for whatever reason do not seem to others to have the skills to take advantage of opportunity as the popular thinking sees and offers it. I believe that the opportunity to offer everyone worldwide an opportunity to serve humanity to the full extent of our talent is becoming more possible thanks to rapidly improving advanced human-job replacing automation.
            We are already cutting out the waste jobs and now we need to enable the education and opportunities to serve in ways that are fit for free humans while the machines serve out lower needs.
            Read this short story(Manna, by Marshall Brain), I do not agree with every point of the utopia offered but it states the coming opportunity and crisis. http://marshallbrain.com/manna1.htm

        2. Being rich can also ruin you. Look at the “celebrities”, many of them die before 50 due to drug use and depression. Sometimes too much can kill you. And of course they can never get any real friends, because they are always hunted by the gold diggers and fans.

      1. I totally and utterly reject your expressions of sorrow! Let nobody be in any doubt these are crocodile tears ye are crying! For hundreds of years my community has enjoyed cheddar cheese and pineapple on a stick and today ye have been seen to trample our demands contemptuously into the mud! Ye vile hag, ye shall be judged unreasonable!

        @dave tl;dr

  3. Yeah, some mentoring would have been and would still be nice, I’ll admit. Oh well, I’ll be applying to grad schools soon with or without it, and with any luck I’ll be Dr. Clara in a few years.

  4. Let me try to nip this nascent class argument in the bud. First off, yeah. A lot of the science done in the Victorian was done by a wealthy upperclass. (Michael Faraday is an amazing counterexample, and yet another superhero in my book. But he’s the exception that proves the rule.) It certainly bought them the leisure time and resources to pursue something other than just subsiding. Maybe it was even a pre-condition.


    a) Most of the Hackaday readership isn’t faced with this existential issue today. These are much better times. Most of us can get formal education, for instance, rather than just the top fraction of a percent back then.

    b) If you’re looking for something to act on, something to change, putting efforts into quality mentorship is much more realistic than trying to make everyone wealthy. Not that righting class wrongs isn’t important, it’s just not the quickest way to improve the quality of science. And keeping quality women scientists/hackers/coders in the game might be.

    So yeah. Back to Ada Lovelace day!

    1. Yes yes yes to mentoring!
      Though for the high skilled work which lets the talented people build their skills further the lack of a paper from at least a state diploma mill means close to zero opportunity in anything other than nametag and vest jorbs.
      With the rise in automated manufacturing we will in the near term have the tools for universal wealth but only if we dissolve this generational class support laws and “he who does not work should not be permitted to eat” stupidity.
      If we can make basic living possible this will leverage volunteer mentors forming alternate universities attended by non-paying students who are not worried about food or rent.
      Pretty much an idealized and egalitarian return to the old European academic system but without enforced celibacy.

      1. Less than 10% of all degrees are in a STEM field. Even today, it is interesting how few people actually have jobs that provide all our actual needs.

        Though there is some benefits to a Universal Income, look at what generational welfare gave us in the 60’s-90’s until we had some basic reforms during the Clinton years. History taught us that they didn’t lay around and become cutting edge philosophers. We ended up with crime, gangs and the breakdown of the family. It also seems with the left that since we can’t raise up the poor in the name of egalitarianism, the next best option is to bring everyone else down.

        1. They actually ended hunger in the US until the reforms started in the 80s…
          Yes cheap high rise housing projects turn out to be terrible when they are located away from education and work opportunity to make that vital first truly successful generation. No jobs, no universities, and not enough mentors to point out how to get those things.
          To find and exploit opportunity you need education, tools, and basic needs met; especially now when most non-nepotism employment opportunities require you to already be trained and ready to perform from your first week on the job.

          1. “Yes cheap high rise housing projects turn out to be terrible when they are located away from education and work opportunity to make that vital first truly successful generation. No jobs, no universities, and not enough mentors to point out how to get those things.”

            You sure about that proximity thing?

            Everyone is obese now. Hunger is “solved.”

          2. They were also Bauhaus Socialist Worker Housing, designed to provide identical dwelling space for all. The easiest way to do that is universal drabness. It also produces a drabness of the soul for the inhabitants, and feelings of great self-satisfaction among the elite.

  5. Lovelace took notes of Babbage’s thoughts on the translations. The assumption that these words were hers has no evidential basis and, from the letters, is clearly wrong. Too bad we have to make up a hero instead of picking one of the women who have actually done something worthwhile!

    1. How come nobody ever claims that Babbage was cribbing from Lovelace? Why do we accept the widely distributed accounts of male achievements without question, but every time a woman is mentioned we all have to get out the microscopes and look for the puppet strings leading back to a man, looking for the REAL story? The only reason there aren’t more well-known women scientists is because they’ve been actively discouraged from entering the field for centuries, and the ones that overcome that barrier anyway (such as Rosalind Franklin) have their subsequent discoveries suppressed or stolen. We’re just barely getting to a point where there are some isolated pockets of egalitarianism, but women have their achievements questioned every single time. When was the last time some guy posted a project on Hackaday and the comments were full of “Well, did he REALLY do it, or did his wife do all the actual work for him and he’s just a model for the project?”

    2. Even if that claim would be true it wouldn’t change anything. If you’d had the mental capacity to understand why you wouldn’t write such crap in the first place.

      “… make up a hero …”?

  6. For my money, Lovelace is overrated. Yes, she was a top-notch math hobbyist. Yes, she was a proto-coder. Clearly, she was a Cut Above The Rest. But she doesn’t really stand on her own. It was a strange era and not very accessible to our modern sensibilities. I think Grace Hopper and Margaret Hamilton make much better role models for girls today.

    1. There are so few women who are actually recognized for their contributions throughout the history, that we can’t really be too picky here. You say she didn’t stand on her own — but even in the most recent history science-fiction writers like Andre Norton would get published if they didn’t pick a pen name that sounded masculine, and scientific papers consistently get more citations if a male-sounding name is included in the author list.

          1. Oh, I’m sure that you can find a prototype for any fictional character if you just stretch the facts enough. And anyways, in the end all the attribution goes to the snake, the prince, the hunter, or to whatever male figure has been inserted into the story just for the purpose.

    2. I ended up thinking a lot about the nature and role of role models and heroes while writing this article. Many of the people who we idolize were actually people, and that means that they were embedded in a social situation, subject to the state of knowledge at the time, and with character flaws and idiosyncracies just like us. Promoting someone to hero status seems to amplify these and put them in an overly stark light.

      Why do we want our heroes / role models to come out of nowhere, to “stand on their own”? Newton is one of my heroes just because he acknowledges his interdependence. Science accretes. (But then you get an Einstein or Curie…)

      I just don’t like the maverick genius myth all that much. Sure, it happens. But I’m not sure it’s a quality to be idolized, because I don’t think it necessarily pushes science forward. For my heroes, anyway. It’s also like saying that I like dill on my salmon. You might not. :)

      Anwyay, Ada Lovelace. I used her genius, but also recognized that mentorship contributes to her genius, to get to a point. (Not coincidentally, it’s also one of the main activities of the Ada Lovelace Association, linked at the top of the article.) But (almost) nobody stands on their own, and that’s not something I require of a science hero anyway, because I don’t think that’s the way science works. Anyway, that’s the point of the emphasis on mentorship. Getting more good people into the game.

      Still, seconded on Hopper and Hamilton. The trouble with writing an article on women science heroes is ironically that there are too many to write a consistent narrative. Let’s have more!

      1. That mentor which teaches a talent how to find and exploit opportunity is as much a hero as the talent themselves, we do not succeed in great things alone. And when we pretend we did it all alone telling tales of using only pain, sweat, and bootstrap levitation while accepting all kinds of help we are being bad mentors and lying to future talent. This especially hurts the economically disadvantaged ones who will burn through meager savings and called in favors quickly, perhaps badly misdirecting their efforts and causing a lost generation to whole systems to pat our own egos, while they waste a lifetime of potential feeling they have failed to bootstrap properly.

      1. Funny story — on my first job, one of my lab mates, a woman with the last name of Plisinski, asked to borrow my calculator. I gave her my HP22S, and she balked. “No, this is one of those funny calculators. I can’t use that.” I said, “No, it’s a regular scientific calculator, not RPN.” She asked what RPN meant, and I said, “Reverse Polish Notation.” Ms. Plisinski proceeded to fly off the handle, berating me for my bigoted comment about Polish people. I just stood there dumbfounded. I finally had to look up RPN on the web to prove to her that I didn’t make it up.

        Good times…

  7. She did not write the first computer program, the guy who designed the computer a decade earlier already had dozens of programs. The format of the program was developed by him many years earlier. Her program also uses features not available in the design of the machine at the time, so it wouldn’t actually run had the Analytical Engine been built.

    Babbage program from ~1838 – http://collection.sciencemuseum.org.uk/documents/aa110001734
    Lovelace program from ~1843 – https://www.sophiararebooks.com/pictures/2367f.jpg?v=1424204102

    For some reason the lie about her being the first programmer is more important that the truth about her being a visionary far beyond Babbage.

  8. Hackaday commenters today: “WTF, Lovelace was not the first computer programmer, Babbage did plenty of programming years before lovelace did her translations rabble rabble no it’s not because she’s a woman, it’s just that Babbage was far more capable and competent than Lovelace”

    Hackaday commenters yesterday: “Yeah, it’s Columbus day, sure the Vikings discovered the new world centuries before Columbus, but if you’re going to have a holiday for what is probably the single most important event in the last thousand years — the discovery of the new world — why not just give it to Columbus? Because we actually know the date of that, or something. Also, what’s cognitive dissonance?”

    1. Aside from the fact that you’re not accurately summarizing discussion at all….your continued, persistent, open disdain for your readership is completely tiresome….and if you can’t post a story on HaD without insulting us, maybe you should find another job:

      The problem is partly in pedestalizing historical figures. It’s certainly not unique to women, and never has been. Some people feel the truth of who they were isn’t good enough, so they embellish. As with most historical figures, I’d guess that 99% of people who tout Ada Lovelace as a superhero of computing…don’t know anything beyond what’s in her Wikipedia page, if that much at all.

      Then there’s just outright BS. For example: the “stack of code she wrote” is bullshit. It a)Isn’t a stack of code, but simulation data printouts; anyone can do the math on how many ‘lines of code’ would be in that stack, or work backwards: from the ~180,000 lines of code, figure out how many sheets it would be) b)she was brought in to the team well into the project ie most of the code wasn’t written even under her supervision, and c)she mostly served in a management/supervisory position.

      She’s still an important historical figure in space exploration, computer science, a great role model for everyone, and someone whose team produced very high quality, critical software. But that’s not code, she didn’t write it, etc. Nevermind that it undervalues her actual contribution and work; she didn’t just write code. She did much more. I admire the fact that she was able to manage a team of mostly men, as a woman, and her guidance produced code that allowed humans to successfully do one of the more technologically impressive things in modern history. With a few glitches, but I seem to recall the AGC self-recovered from most of them? Jesus, there were operating systems decades later that were dumber.

      Consider this: alternate reality land, where the team was mostly women, their manager male, and he’s posing next to a photo of a stack of printouts of “his” code. He contributed code, made major decisions, etc. Is the code “his”? Of course not.

      1. This, there are plenty of women who contributed to science and engineering, and continue to contribute right now. You don’t have to descend into foaming at the mouth white-knight idiocy to recognise everyones contribution.

        1. “There are plenty of women who contributed to science and engineering…” is the truth! I scrapped about three drafts of this article where I picked other inspirational woman scientists, but thought that in the end it was detracting from the Ada Lovelace story — which is kinda the focus today.

    2. When you’re wrapping a package, you need to put a finger exactly upon the intersection of the ribbons before you can tie the ends into a nice tight bow. That’s what you’ve done here, Brian.

    3. Here’s a crazy notion, Brian. How about we be honest with history. Credit will come from that approach. There’s enough victors writing history, they don’t need our help.

    4. The point with Columbus is pretty obvious: Vikings- One family traveling to “Vineland”, pissing off the locals by immediatly killing the first sleeping ones they met, leaving, and writing about it in their local records = NO ONE CARES, and pretty much meaningless for all history afterwards. On the other hand- one person convinces a major European power to fund an expedition, winds up not where intended, but takes advantage of in anyway and sets off a race by all of the European countries of consequence to explore, exploit, trade, colonize etc = MAJOR effect on world history. That is why anyone from the West would care about Columbus day – “Leif Ericson day,” not so much.

      1. Meh. Columbus was lucky, and then, brutal. He killed a lot of the native inhabitants in the name of his God.
        Yes, he “discovered” the New World, but if he hadn’t someone else would have. I’m not sure how much honor is due him, considering his actions after he arrived here.

        1. LMAO the Spanish conquistadors made Cbus look like a fuckin choirboy pushing a baby stroller. I am still always amazed how very little I hear people yelling about “Imperialist Spain”….

  9. I wanted to share this inspirational article with my daughter but the degradation in the comments somewhat put a damper on that :(

    Elliot : I’m not sure I would like dill on my salmon but if we ever dine together and we have salmon I’ll make sure there is some for you. Thankyou for your article

    1. Share it anyway, I’m sure she’ll already be aware that some people exhibit regrettable reactions to these type of things. Shouldn’t take away from her abilities or potential.

    1. From Wikipedia:
      Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya, born Sofia Vasilyevna Korvin-Krukovskaya, was a Russian mathematician …

      “Russian”, that is why she is not pushed trough our throats night and they.

  10. I can’t believe where the little boyz took this thread!

    Anyway, Ada Lovelace is a personal hero of mine, I named one of my dogs after her!

    The thing I never got was why such a talented mathematician thought she could “calculate” the outcome of a horse race.

    1. I encourage you to re-read. I think most of the comments attacked the system she was the illustratory exception to which did not distribute opportunities for both little boyz and women by ability, especially outside of a class who could take resources a they liked within a framework of property and tenant lordship with the force of the state backing them.
      We know that Ada was a perfectly shining intellect to encounter but idolizing her without context leaves her an ultimately disappointing comic book fantasy. I think we can all recognize her accomplishments, but they highlight that there was not even the path of the church school system used by boys like Newton available to women without wealth, power, and a cadre of men supporting, permitting, and protecting them to exist as ‘strange’ women of the time. So the disappointment is not in Ada Lovelace the person who performed at Nobel laureate levels within her tragically short and more sadly non-extendable to other women bubble of opportunity, but in the question of where are her lost and wasted peers who we can not also idolize. Ada did nothing but succeed in a narrow sliver of opportunity within a system that mostly crushed women like her, a system her memory forces us to condemn in a similar way that the life and death of Turning reminds us to condemn a later iteration of the very same society; we remember him as much as martyr for human rights as he was a another star in Ada Lovelace’s field of study.

  11. Actually, if reading the Wikipdia article look for:

    “Controversy over extent of contributions:

    Though Lovelace is referred to as the first computer programmer, some biographers and historians of computing claim otherwise.
    Allan G. Bromley, in the 1990 article Difference and Analytical Engines:

    All but one of the programs cited in her notes had been prepared by Babbage from three to seven years earlier. The exception was prepared by Babbage for her, although she did detect a ‘bug’ in it. Not only is there no evidence that Ada ever prepared a program for the Analytical Engine, but her correspondence with Babbage shows that she did not have the knowledge to do so.[77]
    Bruce Collier, who later wrote a biography of Babbage, wrote in his 1970 Harvard University PhD thesis that Lovelace “made a considerable contribution to publicizing the Analytical Engine, but there is no evidence that she advanced the design or theory of it in any way”.[78]

    Eugene Eric Kim and Betty Alexandra Toole consider it “incorrect” to regard Lovelace as the first computer programmer, as Babbage wrote the initial programs for his Analytical Engine, although the majority were never published.[79] Bromley notes several dozen sample programs prepared by Babbage between 1837 and 1840, all substantially predating Lovelace’s notes.[80] Dorothy K. Stein regards Lovelace’s notes as “more a reflection of the mathematical uncertainty of the author, the political purposes of the inventor, and, above all, of the social and cultural context in which it was written, than a blueprint for a scientific development”.[81] …

    And more “controversies” I did not know about it but it makes sense if you think about it.

  12. Quick comment: I have yet to see a mentoring program in a business worth the paper it was written on. Mentoring is a great idea, and some people are good at it. But it doesn’t mean meeting together with some periodicity with an “assigned mentor”. It means asking people how they do things and having them both have native teaching skills and take the time to tell you. Not everyone can do that, and not everyone should. Good mentors are worth their weight in gold – but they are not common.

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