Wednesday Geek Woman: Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer

The depressing part? Some people argue that Lovelace did not write the first computer program, instead Charles Babbage wrote it for her and she took the credit. Despite ample contemporary evidence in the form of Lovelace’s letters to Babbage while she was writing the Notes, people have many arguments (often tinged with anger and contempt) for why she didn’t write or even understand the first computer program.

This post originally appeared on the Geek Feminism blog and is reposted here for posterity.

This post was originally published at the Ada Initiative’s blog on Ada Lovelace Day.

Ada Lovelace, 1836 portrait in oil by Margaret Sarah Carpenter
Ada Lovelace, 1836 portrait in oil by Margaret Sarah Carpenter

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (known as Ada Lovelace) is probably a familiar figure to most of our readers. She is the world’s first computer programmer, writing the instructions to carry out a computer program on what would have been the world’s first computer if it had been built – the Analytical Engine, designed by famous inventor Charles Babbage.

Lovelace published the first computer program in a paper in 1843. It was presented as “Notes” to a previous, less complete paper on the subject which she also translated, but her “notes” were longer than the original paper and were considerable more insightful. She spent many months perfecting the paper, writing letters back and forth with Charles Babbage to check her work.

The depressing part? Some people argue that Lovelace did not write the first computer program, instead Charles Babbage wrote it for her and she took the credit. Despite ample contemporary evidence in the form of Lovelace’s letters to Babbage while she was writing the Notes, people have many arguments (often tinged with anger and contempt) for why she didn’t write or even understand the first computer program.

Arguments against Lovelace’s authorship include that Lovelace made mathematical mistakes when she was learning mathematics, Lovelace failed to correct a mathematical error introduced by a printer in a reprint of someone else’s work, Lovelace was literally insane, Lovelace had too high an opinion of herself, etc. Interestingly, these arguments are rarely used to question men’s authorship of joint works; indeed mental instability or difficult personalities sometimes seems to add to the reputation of male scientists and mathematicians (Nikola Tesla, John Nash, and Isaac Newton, to name just a few). Certainly I’ve personally never seen a single published mathematical error (actually, in her case merely failure to correct someone else’s error) used as an argument against a male scientist’s competency as a whole.

As another example of the lengths to which Lovelace’s critics will go, Charles Babbage’s biography, written long after Lovelace’s death (and after they worked on the paper) has this statement on Lovelace’s paper:

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.

Ada Lovelace portrait in woodcut style
Ada Lovelace in a modern portrait by Colin Adams

People argue that “the algebraic working out” of the numbers of Bernoulli means that Babbage wrote the program to calculate the numbers of Bernoulli. Yet the paper contains an actual algebraic equation for calculating the numbers of Bernoulli – separate from the computer program – which would seem much more likely to be what Babbage is referring to.

More contemporary evidence in Lovelace’s favor includes her extrapolations of what a general purpose computer could do, which stretched far beyond Babbage’s ideas for its use (printing mathematical tables, mostly). She even proposed that computers could make music, which definitely wasn’t Babbage’s idea as he was famous for his passionate hatred of music. The Computer History Museum’s biography of Ada Lovelace says, “The idea of a machine that could manipulate symbols in accordance with rules and that number could represent entities other than quantity mark the fundamental transition from calculation to computation. Ada was the first to explicitly articulate this notion and in this she appears to have seen further than Babbage.” On balance, the evidence would suggest, if anything, that Babbage was the person who did not fully understand the computing capabilities of his invention and Lovelace had the greater knowledge.

In the end, most arguments that Lovelace did not write the first program only make sense in the context of a common assumption: in any partnership between a man and woman, the man did the important work and the woman assisted and polished. Look at Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet. Du Châtelet was a pioneer in the new discipline of physics, publishing several seminal papers in physics, a physics textbook, and a translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Voltaire and du Châtelet were long-term collaborators in the areas of physics and mathematics, working closely on many works, as well as lovers. However, Voltaire’s primary or sole authorship of many of their joint works is rarely questioned.

As one example, only Voltaire’s name appeared on a book he published, of which he later wrote, “Minerva dictated, and I wrote.” Voltaire often referred to du Châtelet as Minerva (interesting in itself as it suggests that du Châtelet was a channel for the goddess of wisdom rather than the originator of her ideas). Is there any serious contention that Voltaire was not the primary author of his publications during the time he collaborated with du Chatelet? No. Was there plenty of evidence that she contributed significantly to his published works? Yes.

How to Suppress Women’s Writing” by Joanna Russ shows the patterns in how people dismiss women’s writing: “She didn’t write it. She wrote it but she shouldn’t have. She wrote it but look what she wrote about. She wrote it but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art,” ad nauseum. (Substitute “computer programmer” for the last – people also argue that what Lovelace wrote wasn’t really a program, either.)

Lovelace’s current Wikipedia page reflects the effect of thousands of people arguing against giving credit to Lovelace: “[…] She is sometimes considered the world’s first computer programmer.” But what Lovelace needs is not a better Wikipedia page, but a better biography.

The most evidence-based biography, “Ada: The Enchantress of Numbers,” quotes heavily from Lovelace’s letters, but is written by someone without a deep understanding of computing. Other biographical works are written by people who appear to be heavily biased against Lovelace, often making extremely critical personal judgements and sweeping statements contradicting contemporary evidence without citing evidence to the contrary.

In 2012, we should not be denigrating women’s accomplishments in science based on specious arguments about personality, occasional errors, and collaborations with men. That’s one of the purposes of Ada Lovelace Day: to bring recognition to women who have had credit for their accomplishments stolen from them.

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Ada Lovelace Day party in San Francisco

Ada Lovelace Day is coming up next Tuesday, October 16th, and so the Ada Initiative is throwing a party in downtown San Francisco.

Details at the link, but I wanted to post here so I could make a personal comment: I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the first Ada Initiative event in San Francisco. The vibe was totally different from the usual San Francisco geek gathering: Every conversations sounded like people were enjoying talking to each other. I’m sure some people like those competitive geek conversations in which people try to prove they are smarter than each other, but I find them pretty boring now, and apparently so did everyone else at the event.

Both AdaCamps were like this too – a geek conference which yet had zero of the things I hate about geek conferences. Running events in which 100% of the attendees are people who think more women should be involved in open technology and culture has completely changed my mind about what geek culture can be.

Ada Lovelace Day: Sandra K. Johnson

There are two ways to answer the question, “Why are there so few famous women scientists and technologists?” One is to point out the obstacles women faced (and still face). For example, Lise Meitner, co-discoverer of nuclear fission, wasn’t allowed to go to graduate school, had to work for free for many years, and was blatantly excluded from the Nobel prize for discovering fission. This was absolutely typical treatment for women at the time – and for quite some time afterwards. Caltech didn’t admit women until 1970!

The second way to answer is to point out all the women who did and are doing important work in science in technology despite these obstacles, and not getting very much credit for it. On Ada Lovelace Day, we raise the profile of women in science and technology by blogging about less well-known women and including memorable stories and details, so that you’ll remember them the next time someone claims “There are no women in $FIELD.”

Dr. Sandra K. Johnson: Parallel processing expert and first African-American woman electrical engineering PhD in the U.S.

Dr. Sandra K. Johnson (also known as Sandra Johnson Baylor) got interested in electrical engineering through an invitation to go to a high school summer camp program at Southern University, a historically black university in Baton Rouge. At the time, she thought engineering was all about “driving a train” but she decided she’d go anyway and get out of town for the summer. She loved engineering camp and went back to Southern to get her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, and ultimately went on to become the first African-American woman to get a PhD in electrical engineering in the United States.

While working as a researcher at IBM’s T. J. Watson Research Lab, Dr. Johnson worked on the prototype of the SP2 processor for IBM’s “Deep Blue” chess machine, as well as a variety of topics in the extraordinarily difficult field of highly parallel computing, including memory and IO behavior of parallel programs, cache coherence protocols, scalable shared-memory systems, and the Vesta Parallel File System. (If you’re looking for her publications, many of her papers are published under the name S. J. Baylor.) She held a number of high-ranking positions at IBM, including Linux Performance Architect, and managing the Linux Performance team.

Ironically, Dr. Johnson is currently working as an IBM business development executive in the United Arab Emirates, a relatively progressive country next door to Saudi Arabia, where she is not allowed to drive, among other highly discriminatory laws against women.Often when people claim we have already achieved legal gender equality (in their own country, of course), they forget that science, technology, and business are global activities, and career advancement often depends on working in several different countries. [Correction: The original said women weren’t allowed to drive in UAE, which was me confusing Saudi Arabia with UAE.]

Sandra Johnson’s books are representative of her career: She was editor in chief of Linux Performance Tuning, author of Inspirational Nuggets, which encourages people to reach their full potential, as well as co-author with her brother of Gregory: Life of a Lupus Warrior, about her brother’s fight with lupus (Sandra was subsequently diagnosed with a non-life threatening form of lupus). Dr. Johnson is a combination of intellectual powerhouse and kind mentor. She’s on her way to the top, and she wants to bring other women (and especially women of color) along with her.

I was lucky enough to meet Dr. Johnson at the Grace Hopper women in computing conference in 2010, and I was deeply impressed. She was not only intelligent and competent, but incredibly supportive of other women. Dr. Johnson on how to become an IEEE fellow (or get any other award): It’s not magic, you have to tell your friends and mentors, “I want to be an IEEE fellow,” and then get someone to take responsibility for bugging your friends to write letters to nominate you. Don’t feel bad about asking for recognition, that’s just how it works.

Sandra Johnson is also a public speaker, with booking information on her web site. I highly recommend her as a speaker. She’s clear, informative, and inspirational in a practical and realistic way. If you get a chance to see her speak, jump at it! Personally, I hope I get to meet Dr. Johnson again.

So, next time someone says there aren’t any women in electrical engineering or processor design, you can pipe up with, “Oh, I can’t believe you haven’t heard of Dr. Sandra Johnson! She did all kinds of work on parallel processors and cache coherency for highly parallel systems and, oh yeah, the Vespa parallel file system too. She even worked on the prototype for IBM’s Deep Blue! Did you know she was also the first African-American woman to get a PhD in electrical engineering in the U.S.? Right now she’s working in the Middle East, can you believe that irony? If you ever get the chance to see her speak, take it!”

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!