McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: Women Who Should Be Pretty Pissed Off: Ada Lovelace Was Smarter Than You.
I have no business writing about math. I shouldn’t even be writing about people writing about math. The fact that I’m doing exactly that is probably the first thing that Ada Lovelace should be pretty pissed off about.
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) has been called a genius, a mathematician, a writer, and the world’s first computer programmer. She was all of those things, more or less, and she lived her life both thanks to and in spite of her famous father.
So—the juicy details. (And trust me, the details are juicier than I have time to explain here.)
Ada was the daughter of Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron and the illustrious Romantic poet, Lord Byron. Their marriage was short, ending when Lady Anne left in the middle of the night with her one-month-old baby bundled in her arms.
We don’t really know exactly why Ada’s mother left Byron, but since he was both wildly famous (imagine Johnny Depp times 1,000) and wildly promiscuous, it’s easy to imagine that he wasn’t the stay-at-home-and-rub-my-wife’s-aching-feet husband that Lady Anne might have preferred. It’s also easy to imagine that her parents’ separation was the first thing that pissed Ada off.
Oh, and Lord Byron was likely bisexual.
And he probably slept with his half-sister.
There’s some evidence that he fathered a child with that same half-sister.
But other than that, husband and father of the year.
Raising Ada on her own, Anne may’ve gone a bit overboard in her anti-Byron campaign. She emphasized math in her daughter’s education in hopes of training Ada’s brain to be unpoetic and un-spontaneous; in other words, as un-Byron-like as possible.
But really, Ada owes her father a great debt.
If Byron hadn’t slept with anyone and everyone who was willing (an exaggeration I feel he would appreciate), and been in general a pretty crappy husband and father, you might not be reading this article today. Not only because Byron’s happy home life would be far less interesting to be pissed off about, but because Anne wouldn’t have overreacted and steeped Ada in math, from which she developed the mind that (arguably) created the world’s first computer program, after which someone created the internet and voila!, here you are at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.
That’s the official historic sequence, by the way: Ada Lovelace, then the internet, and then McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. All of the important milestones accounted for.
It’s hard not to focus on Byron, and this was society’s problem in his lifetime, too. His presence eclipsed everything around him. Ada never saw him after her first month of life, but she certainly knew of him and absorbed every detail about him covered in the press (and there were many—he was like the first Kardashian, but with actual talent). Ada certainly must’ve been pissed off when he died fighting for Greece when he was only 36 years old, eliminating any chance she might have had to know him.
Ada also died when she was 36 years old, and, like her father, she did not receive the acclaim her accomplishments deserved until fairly recently.
Young Ada was precocious and operated in pretty swanky circles. At age 12 she designed a flying machine. One of her tutors was William Frend, who had a brief affair with Mary Hays, who was good friends with Mary Wollstonecraft, whose daughter was Mary Shelley, whose step-sister was Claire Clairmont, who had a baby with Byron.
And you thought your world was small.
Ada was also friends with Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott. In 1837, author and future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli wrote a novel titled Venetia, loosely based on Ada. But Ada disregarded fame, fashion, and beauty (things women were, and still are, stereotypically obsessed with) in pursuit of her passion.
Another of Ada’s tutors was Mary Somerville, one of the greatest mathematicians in the world. Somerville Hall (now Somerville College), one of the first women’s colleges in Oxford, was named for her. Ada’s mother was not messing around when it came to teaching her daughter anything but poetry.
On June 5, 1833, Ada met Charles Babbage, a cranky genius who was working on the Difference Engine, which was a fully automated “thinking machine,” able to make calculations after someone input the numbers. London was simply in awe, but Ada understood how it worked. Babbage and Ada worked together on an advanced version called the Analytical Engine.
But first, Ada married, had three kids in three years, kept up three homes (hey, I never said she wasn’t loaded), and learned that her husband, William, Lord King (no kidding, that’s his name) was a bit listless.
No matter. Ada kept busy. She translated Luigi Federico Menabrea’s paper on the Analytical Engine. Menabrea’s paper was about 8,000 words. Ada added 20,000 words in her appended notes. Babbage probably didn’t even understand Ada’s notes, but they are widely regarded as the first computer program ever. This, by the way, is another debt Ada owed her father: though she’d be trained largely in mathematics, she possessed a creative and literary mind that enabled her to both analyze and translate what she read. It’s like the liberal arts were determined to shine through Ada Lovelace!
To put this in some perspective, keep in mind that Ada lived in a time when the word “computer” referred to a person who computes.
Still, rather than recognizing Ada’s genius, some still dismiss her as mad, a word that was also applied to her father, and an accusation that kept him from being lauded, as well. It would no doubt piss Ada off to know that women in many scientific fields are still harassed and held back, but I hope those women take heart in knowing they had a phenomenal predecessor.