In Celebration of Ada Lovelace, the First Computer Programmer
If it had been built, the first programmable computer would have been a huge mechanical machine that clunked along with gears, levers, and punch cards. This was Charles Babbage’s vision for Analytical Engine, which he created in 1837. While Babbage is acknowledged as having created the machine, his friend Ada Lovelace was the one who understood the promise of the machine and the potential it would have to fulfill. Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron and a brilliant mathematician, wrote extensive notes about the machine’s capabilities and translated an Italian article about the Analytical Engine. These notes not only explain the engine better than Babbage could but also describe an algorithm it could use that is often considered the first computer program in the world.
Lovelace died in her early years of friendship with Babbage. The Analytical Engine wasn’t built, except for the pages of The Thrilling Adventures Of Lovelace and Babbage (Pantheon), April 2015), a graphic book by Sydney Padua. The story of Padua shows how two friends build a gargantuan engine, and then become a techy duo to fight crime. Scientific American talked to Padua regarding the importance of Ada Lovelace Day, which is celebrated every Tuesday in October. Also, Padua’s personal experience as a woman in the field of digital animation.
[ A edited transcript of the interview is available.
What attracted you to the Lovelace-Babbage story?
It happened by chance. It was an accident. I was with Suw Charman, my friend who founded Lovelace Day, in a pub when she suggested that I write a blog post. Although I was not a woman working in tech, I did work on computers. In a few evenings, I created a short biographical comic on Lovelace and Babbage. It then got so much attention. The story fascinated me and I fell in love with Babbage and Lovelace. It took on a whole new life.
What is the inspiration behind Lovelace Day?
I am not affiliated with Lovelace Day in any way. However, if you have a day when you flood the Internet with blog posts about women doing cool things in science and technology, you create a shift in perception: There are tons [of women] doing all kinds of stuff so [women] will think], “I am not the odds.”
How does Ada Lovelace’s story relate to Women in Science Today?
It is difficult to follow the right path and walk straight. This was what 19th-century women had difficulty with. Lovelace is a reminder of modern women’s relationship with science. She’s confused about it and [thinking] “Do you want to study the humanities or math?” Her oddity as a woman in mathematics was very distressing to her. It’s something that I believe many women can relate to.
Do you feel this as a woman working in computer science?
It may have been the reason I avoided computer animation so much. You’re hyperconscious and that can make it very difficult to do your job. It’s that feeling of being a foreigner and a little bit in enemy territory. Although it is subtle, I believe it can still be a powerful force when you run into difficulties.
Are you seeing things getting better?
I teach animation. Each year, I have more girls in my animation class. They are amazing at it. Not just the animation but also the tech and rigging. It’s certainly causing a significant turnaround in my field which is extremely encouraging.
You stated that you are reluctant to work with computers. What do you love about Babbage’s Analytical Engine?
It’s the abstraction of computers that I dislike most. The Analytical Engine is my favorite because you can see each part and understand its functions. This is a more intuitive way to grasp all these concepts.
I love barrels, for example. The barrels, which are the mechanism that stores the program of the machine’s computer programs, are not often mentioned. They to me, however, I find them the most remarkable thing. They are taken from a music box or barrel organ. The pegs are just as great because Babbage was involved in a famous war with street musicians. The resonance is what I love. They’re beautiful and clever because one card can allow you to run this complex sequence with dozens upon levers. They are just wonderful.
Lovelace’s work has been referred to as a precursor to computer programs in modern times. Is she still alive today?
The other day, I found an obituary in a Canadian newspaper from 1852 that was–unusual for Lovelace obituaries -completely focused on her Analytical Engine paper. I was quite delighted. Almost everyone else thought the same thing and didn’t mention the math.