In Celebration of Ada Lovelace, the First Computer Programmer – Scientific American

The first programmable computer—if it were built—would have been a gigantic, mechanical thing clunking along with gears and levers and punch cards. That was the vision for Analytical Engine devised by British inventor Charles Babbage in 1837. Whereas Babbage is credited with the machine’s conception, it was perhaps his friend Ada Lovelace who best understood its promise and the potential that computers would one day fulfill. The daughter of Romantic poet Lord Byron, Lovelace was a gifted mathematician and intellectual who translated an Italian article on the Analytical Engine and supplemented it with extensive notes on the machine’s capabilities. In these notes she not only explained the engine more clearly than Babbage had been able to, but she also described an algorithm it could carry out that is often considered to be the world’s first computer program.

Lovelace died early on into her friendship with Babbage, and the Analytical Engine was never built—except for in the pages of The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Pantheon, April 2015), a graphic novel by artist and animator Sydney Padua. In Padua’s story the two friends complete the gargantuan engine and become an eccentric, techy crime-fighting duo. Scientific American spoke to Padua about the importance of Ada Lovelace Day—celebrated every second Tuesday of October—and Padua’s own experience as a woman working in the technological field of digital animation.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

What drew you to the story of Lovelace and Babbage?
It was an accident. I was in a pub with my friend Suw Charman, who started Lovelace Day, when she suggested I do a blog post. I didn’t really think of myself as a woman in tech—I worked on computers, but very reluctantly. I did a very short biographical comic [on Lovelace and Babbage] in a couple of evenings, and then it got so much pickup. I then became fascinated with the story and completely fell in love with Lovelace and Babbage. From there, it just took on a life of its own.

What’s the idea behind Lovelace Day?
I’m not connected to Lovelace Day in any formal way. But by having a day where you just flood the Internet with blog posts about women doing cool stuff [in science and technology], you create a perceptual shift: There are tons of women doing all sorts of stuff, so [women will think], “I’m not the weirdo.”

How does Ada Lovelace’s story relate to women in science today?
It’s hard to walk the straight and narrow and follow the perfect path, which 19th-century women had to do. Lovelace reminds me of modern women and their relationship to science in that she’s conflicted about it, [thinking,] “Do I want to go into the humanities or do I want to study math?” She was extremely aware of her oddity as a woman in mathematics; the knowledge that she wasn’t supposed to be doing mathematics was psychologically very difficult to her. And I think a lot of women can relate to that feeling of having to do everything right and being self-conscious in science.

Have you felt this yourself as a woman in computer science?
I think that might have been a reason I stayed away from computer animation for so long—you’re hyperconscious in a way that makes work very difficult. That feeling that you’re not a native [and] a bit in enemy territory. It’s subtle, but I think it’s still a very powerful force when you start running into difficulty.

Do you see things improving?
I teach animation. Every year I’m getting more and more girls in my class and they’re absolutely killing it, not just in terms of the animation but the tech and rigging and whatnot. So it’s definitely having a big turnaround in my field, which is incredibly heartening.

You said you work on computers reluctantly. What do you like about Babbage’s Analytical Engine?
It’s the abstraction of computers I don’t like very much. Whereas I love the Analytical Engine because you can see every single part of it and understand what it does. It’s just a much more intuitive way of grasping all these concepts.

For example, I love the barrels! Nobody talks about the barrels [the mechanism that stores the machine’s programs], which to me are the most amazing thing. I love them because they’re clearly adapted from a music box or barrel organ, with the pegs and everything, which is just great because Babbage had this famous war with street musicians. I like the resonance there. And they’re just these beautiful, clever things where one card can let you run through this whole very complicated sequence with dozens of levers. I think they’re just delightful.

In modern times Lovelace’s work is known as a precursor for computer programs. Was she recognized while she was alive?
Just the other day I actually found an obituary from a Canadian paper from 1852 that—extremely unusually for Lovelace obituaries—focused entirely on her Analytical Engine paper. So I was pretty delighted. Almost everyone else was like, “oh, Byron’s daughter,” and wouldn’t even mention the math.

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