Looking for Lovelace: In Search of Role Models for Women in Computing

In the field of computing, there is a paucity of people that do not identify as white, cis-gendered and male. This problem is most salient when we see how the the largest “minority” group, the female-identifying population, has been excluded from playing, studying and working with computers. The exclusion of women from profitable professions is nothing new, but when we look at the history of computing, we see that this may be a more recent phenomenon than anticipated.

According to this NPR graphic, women majoring in computer science were on the steady rise since its inception as a field of study, with more women studying computer science in the late 1970s and early 80s than other sciences combined. Despite the contemporary stigma toward women within Silicon Valley (as made evident in headlines in the New York Times and Valleywag), women were some of the first to work in the industry, and not just as secretaries. It wasn’t paradise, but creating and exploring unchartered terrain never is.

In 1983, biologist and feminist Donna Haraway wrote:

In the prototypical Silicon Valley, many women’s lives have been structured around employment in electronics-dependent jobs, and their intimate realities include serial heterosexual monogamy, negotiating childcare, distance from extended kin or most other forms of traditional community, a high likelihood of loneliness and extreme economic vulnerability as they age. The ethnic and racial diversity of women in Silicon Valley structures a microcosm of conflicting differences in culture, family, religion, education, and language.

We see from an insider point of view that in its formative years, Silicon Valley was a diverse hub. And then, according to the statistics, women stopped studying computer science in 1984 in a dramatic halt. Was it the pressures that Haraway spoke of that stopped them? Perhaps, but since those societal pressures have been imposed on women from the start, it is unlikely to account for the sudden 1984 dip in interest. NPR’s “Planet Money” (a twice-weekly podcast focused on discussing the economy) offers a variety of theories on this phenomenaa: the leading one explains that the accessibility and marketability of personal computers to young boys gave them a vital step up to studying computers and coding. Since personal computers were not around in the 70s (but were in the 80s), it was an even playing field until this new variable came into play. Bringing the computer from the public classroom into the privatized home stratified its accessibility along lines of class, race, and gender.

Studies show that the slightest suggestion to girls, especially at a young age, that they are not supposed to be good at something—such as the assumption that a boy can do it better, that they will feel unwelcome in a male spaces—turns into an internalized and self-fulfilling prophecy. A girl may very well test worse in computer science than if she was told that the playing field was even. Another review shows that girls are more likely to excel when presented with female role models in the given task—they need to see someone do it so that they can construct a narrative of success. Google made headlines earlier this year when it was revealed that only 17 percent of their tech sector employees identified as women. Taking a close look at history might show us that there are examples of successful people who “look like us” in the past. And in seeing this, we might be able to reverse the downward trend we have seen since 1984.

If you haven’t heard, the first computer programmer was a woman.

And here is where we come to Augusta Ada King, more popularly known as Lady Ada Lovelace. Born in 1815 to an English aristocratic family, she was the only legitimate child of poet Lord Byron, whom she never met. She was raised by her single mother, Lady Byron, whom Lord Byron had nicknamed his “Princess of Parallelograms.” This apparent love of geometry was reflected in Ada’s upbringing, in which she was heavily schooled in math and science, apparently to avoid the moral “poisoning” of her father’s poetic genes. Before she was 17, she had already drawn up technical schemes to create a “flying machine” using close anatomical studies of birds as the basis for her design.

Fast forward to 1837, when the first computer was designed by Charles Babbage. The Analytical Machine, as he called it, used a complex system of gears and levers to automatically perform mathematical calculations. The Analytical Machine was never physically realized, but the detailed designs were highly studied for their fascinating mathematical principles.

Babbage and Lovelace were a few decades apart in age (Babbage was thirty years her senior) but they ran in the same circles of aristocratic intellectuals. Babbage recognized Lovelace’s exemplary mathematical abilities and asked her to collaborate with him on his computer. “I think your taste for mathematics is so decided that it ought not to be checked,” wrote Babbage to Lovelace in 1839. Like her mother, she was dubbed with her own mathematical nickname: “Enchantress of Numbers.”

Google featured Ada Lovelace on their Google Doodle on December 10th, 2012, her 197th birthday.

Google featured Ada Lovelace on their Google Doodle on December 10th, 2012, her 197th birthday.

It was in her translation of a journal paper on the machine that the true depth of her knowledge of computers came to light. In this translation from Italian to English, she tripled the original article length with her own notes. She showed that she knew more of the machine’s potential than the creator himself. While Babbage designed the hardware and recognized its capability as a complex calculating instrument for tasks such as banking, Lovelace wrote further of its uses in a wide variety of programmable fields that Babbage had not thought of:

[The Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, where objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine. Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.

 She saw art and functionality in the binary cogs. In addition to seeing the powerful promise of this machine, she demonstrated its actual mathematical functionality, writing the algorithm for the machine to produce Bernoulli numbers from a given input. This algorithm, found in note G of her translation, is widely considered to be the first computer program.

The impact of these notes cannot be overstated. It was almost a century later that Alan Turing studied them, and they were no doubt a part of the inspiration for his formalizing of the budding concepts of ‘algorithm’ and ‘computation.’ Turing is well-known as the father of theoretical computer science—rightly so—but it is now high time to look further into the history of the computer and speak of its mother as well.

Ada Lovelace had everything in place to make her discoveries. She was from a wealthy and famous family, giving her the time and materials to pursue her passions and calculations. She was pushed by a strong and intelligent role model, her mother, into studies that were normally considered out of a woman’s domain. She was tutored by Mary Somerville, who was famous at the time for translating Newton’s texts to French and is now known for making many astronomical discoveries about Neptune and Uranus. Her main mentor, Babbage (already known in his own right), was unusually generous in sharing credit for their collaborative work (many mixed gender collaborations in history have not shared credit—for example, look at the work of Voltaire and du Chatelet).

Critics have tried to diminish the importance of her work, or her hand in its making, by emphasizing these details, but we will not give any more time to these people as their fallacious critiques stink of obvious misogyny. This detailing of her history is written not to diminish her ability, but to show how influential the environment of development is on the intellectual development of a person. How the presence of role models and material resources are necessary for a person to realize their potential. We are told to study history as not to repeat it, but we must study Ada’s story, and her notes, so that we have a role model, so that we have a positive and revised version of events, so that we may repeat this history.


  • Vassar Kid says:

    Where is Grace Hopper in all of this? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_Hopper

    • Layla (OP) Layla (OP) says:

      It is not my intention that Lovelace is the only female computer programmer. She was simply the first (which is still hotly debated–I can expand on that point if anyone is interested). Grace Hopper is one of the very few women, alongside Lovelace, that has been inscribed into the history of computing. She is another great scientist that we should all (and many of us do) study when looking for role models.

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