The Analytical Engine

March is women’s history month (in the US).

I am talking about some of the women who have inspired me.

Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace

Today’s awesome woman is Ada Lovelace. You may know her as Lord Byron’s only legitimate heir. She referred to herself as an analyst and metaphysician. She worked on the development of the world’s first mechanical difference engine (which we know now as a ‘computer’). There have been many books and articles written about the Countess of Lovelace, and I encourage you to look some of them up. Here is an article about her from the San Diego Computer Center.

Much of Lovelace’s success may be attributed to her mother, who insisted Ada receive an education most girls would not have received (some argue this drive was to encourage the girl to be as different from her poet father as possible). Needless to say, in the early 19th century, “hard” sciences like mathematics and physics weren’t incredibly popular (compared to, say, botany or astronomy). But Ada excelled at mathematics, and so her mother encouraged her to follow that talent. Of course, women were not expected to participate in intellectual pursuits; in fact, many people figured that women were *incapable* of any sort of strenuous intellectual exercise. Meanwhile Ada Lovelace was writing the first computer program.

It’s true that most of the women on this list will be the sort of women who buck and transcend gender expectations, and Ada Lovelace is no exception. Unfortunately, her work was not recognized as being seminal to the development of modern computer science, and even now because she worked closely with Charles Babbage (the de facto “inventor” of the modern difference engine).

Regardless, learning of Lovelace’s contribution to modern mathematics and computer science in the 1980s blew my mind. I studied her writings, wished I had the sort of mind that fully comprehended the sort of abstract thinking that mathematics required, and began to wonder about things. One of the things I thought about was the fact that Lovelace benefitted from being a woman of peerage – her mother could afford her education. I thought about all the women who weren’t even able to get a basic education at that time. All the women who weren’t even taught to read. And of the women who *were* taught to read, whose families could afford education, how most of them were chastised – and worse – for expressing an opinion or, in fact, for wanting to learn more. In fact, one of Lovelace’s tutors – Mary Somerville – was a noted science writer, and she herself was an anomaly in the sciences because of her gender.

Those of us who are fans of the steampunk genre picture Ada Lovelace as the inventor of a steam-powered flying machine – as a child, she dreamed of flying and dreaming, for Ada Lovelace, meant drafting and planning and experiments.

It made me appreciate the opportunities I have had, the opportunities my mother and grandmothers had, and the opportunities my great-grandmothers had. It made me wonder how many other women had, quite literally, *changed the world*. This was also around the same time I started thinking about the relationship between art and mathematics, a subject which intrigues me to this day. Some of my favourite writers and musicians are also mathematicians.

At any rate. Ada Lovelace. One of the women who changed the world. Think about her as you read this on your computer.







2 responses to “The Analytical Engine”

  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Avatar

    I have a PhD in Nuclear Engineering (plasma physics). My parents – both university graduates – met at the U. of Illinois. My maternal grandparents ditto. I followed women like Ada Lovelace into the sciences; but, as my daughter says, the example of women in our family has been nothing short of extraordinary for their times. My children grew up knowing this – it is a built-in expectation that they will have access to and take advantage of the educational opportunities offered them, and our daughter has had great examples, and is surviving a very tough college. The groundbreakers made it possible for me.

    Not everyone has to be into the sciences – but, if they have the ability and the interest, they should be able to try.

    1. cenobyte Avatar

      I would love to read more about plasma physics! And I’m not even pulling your leg – plasma is fascinating and all I know about it is that it doesn’t always act like you’d expect it to!

i make squee noises when you tell me stuff.

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