Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

Celebrating the first computer programmer

UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 27: Watercolour portrait by Alfred Edward Chalon of Ada King wearing evening dress with a mantilla and holding a fan. Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852) was the daughter of the great Romantic poet Lord Byron (1788-1824). She was a writer and a trained mathematician. King acquired fame by working with Charles Babbage (1791-1871) on the world's first computer, the Analytical Engine, which could carry out many different types of calculations. She designed several computer programmes for the engine which were coded onto cards with holes punched in them - thus becoming the world's first computer programmer. The universally recognised computer language ADA is named after her. Dimensions: 250mm x 183mm. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Ada Lovelace Day is an international celebration of women in STEM which is celebrated annually on the second Tuesday of October.

“When Ada Lovelace was twelve years old, she wanted to fly. She approached the problem methodically, examining birds and investigating various materials that could serve as wings—feathers, paper, silk. In the course of her research, which began in February, 1828, according to her biographer Betty Alexandra Toole, Ada wrote and illustrated a guide called ‘Flyology,’ to record her findings. She toiled away on this project until her mother reprimanded her for neglecting her studies, which were meant to set her on a rational course, not a fanciful one.

Ada’s mother, Annabella Byron, was the straight-laced counterpoint to her father, Lord Byron, the Romantic poet, who called his wife the ‘Princess of Parallelograms.’ A month after Ada’s birth, Annabella Byron moved their daughter out of their London house, and away from Lord Byron’s influence. When, shortly before his death, he wrote asking about Ada’s upbringing, Annabella had this to report: ‘Not devoid of imagination, but is chiefly exercised in connection with her mechanical ingenuity.’ This was the best she could hope for, having drilled into Ada a discipline for arithmetic, music, and French, according to the biography ‘A Female Genius,’ by James Essinger, which comes out today. Essinger writes that Lady Byron wished to suppress her daughter’s imagination, which she thought to be ‘dangerous and potentially destructive and coming from the Byrons.’

But Lovelace reconciled the competing poles of her parents’ influence. On January 5, 1841, she asked, ‘What is Imagination?’ Two things, she thought. First, ‘the combining faculty,’ which ‘seizes points in common, between subjects having no apparent connection,’ and then, she wrote, ‘Imagination is the Discovering Faculty, pre-eminently. It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science.’

Augusta Ada Lovelace is known as the first computer programmer, and, since 2009, she has been recognized annually on October 15th to highlight the often overlooked contributions of women to math and science. The main event is being held today at Imperial College London, with the début of an anthology of essays, ‘A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention.’ ‘I started to think that one of the biggest parts of the problem was that women in tech are often invisible,’ Suw Charman-Anderson, the founder of Ada Lovelace Day, told me. After reading a study in 2006 by the psychologist Penelope Lockwood, who researched the dearth of female role models in the sciences, Charman-Anderson thought that a fête for Lovelace could raise awareness of her noteworthy successors. This year, dozens of celebrations will be thrown around the world, including an ‘Ada Lovelace Edit-a-thon’ at Brown University, where volunteers will ramp up Wikipedia entries for female scientists.

Looming in the background of these festivities are findings, announced last month by the Census Bureau, that the share of women working in stem (science, technology, engineering, and math) has decreased over the past couple of decades; this is due largely to the fact that women account for a smaller proportion of those employed in computing. In 1990, women held thirty-four per cent of stem jobs; in 2011, it was twenty-seven per cent. Valerie Aurora, the executive director of the Ada Initiative, a nonprofit organization that arranges conferences and training programs to elevate women working in math and science, is participating in the first ever Ada Lovelace conference this week, at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. ‘Lovelace is an unusual example of a woman for her time because she was not only allowed to learn mathematics but encouraged to learn mathematics,’ Aurora said. ‘She shows what women can do when given a chance.'”

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, The New Yorker  | OCTOBER 15, 2013