[SIGCIS-Members] Innovators Assemble: Ada Lovelace, Walter Isaacson, and the Superheroines of Computing

James Sumner james.sumner at manchester.ac.uk
Fri Sep 4 08:58:44 PDT 2015

Dear all

Tom and Mark's article has given me some useful food for thought as I 
finish writing a review of Padua's cartoon treatment (on which I tend to 
agree with their estimation. For an unabashed jokefest, it's remarkably 
historiographically acute on the re-evaluation of Lovelace's 
contribution to the Analytical Engine project, as far as it goes; she 
doesn't really play with the further difficulty over whether the project 
overall influenced later work, though she's quite careful to avoid 
encouraging the reader to assume it did).

The /CACM/ article's comments on Lovelace as a constructed heroine with 
impossible powers chime closely with a lot of work by historians of 
science, including those most concerned with real women's opportunities 
and challenges in both past and present scientific cultures. I'm 
reminded of Becky Higgitt's Guardian science blog columns on the 
occasion of two successive Ada Lovelace Days:


It's notable that the core historianly objection to "heroine" rhetoric 
in women-into-science activism is that it's both bad history and bad 
advocacy, combining a limited version of a feminist platform with a 
veiled denial that patriarchy really operated to oppress. The evidence 
shows that, if we take the modern definition of "doing science" as 
"publishing original scientific research", then, for many time periods 
in many fields, there literally weren't any women doing science, because 
there were formal structures which efficiently and comprehensively 
stopped them from doing it. The historian can still legitimately 
retrieve scientifically active women, of course, by making a more 
careful evaluation of how scientific activity really worked -- 
revealing, for instance, the significance of hidden collaborators, 
technicians, popularisers and educators (Lovelace's mentor Mary 
Somerville being a key case here). This questioning of definitions turns 
out to have all sorts of wider benefits in understanding science and 
scientific authority. This, I suspect, is the main reason why those of 
us who have that training get so upset when advocates simply short-cut 
it and insert a modern-day female research scientist into Victorian 
England, smoothing over the joins with vague appeals to "inspiration" 
and "insight".

I've been watching the Ada-as-angel narrative gain ground in the UK over 
the past few years whilst regrettably failing to do anything much about 
it, and it's notable that it's developed its own tweaked version of the 
historiography. This usually makes Bruce Collier very prominent, as a 
convenient villain, and tends to erase mention of Dorothy Stein, who 
doesn't fit its pattern. Stein's text is notable for being both 
explicitly feminist and particularly dismissive of Lovelace's 
accomplishments, holding up her canonisation as symptomatic of the 
confusion and tokenism that has infected the profession. Stein is 
particularly compelling in showing how Lovelace -- though possessed of 
wealth, aristocratic status, and automatic celebrity -- was placed 
restricted by social conventions to a degree we would consider totally 
extraordinary. Unfortunately, Stein also goes in for retrospective 
psychological diagnosis in a style the historical professionals will 
find worryingly presentist, and pushes the case for Lovelace's 
mathematical ignorance further than the evidence will safely bear (hence 
the detailed refutation work by Betty Toole, which has unfortunately 
tended to distract attention from the question of Lovelace's originality 
and influence, and indeed of Babbage's influence).

I've long been curious about the growth of the Ada myth, as addressed in 
Tom and Mark's Ngram and hinted at in their footnote 'c'. Contributors 
to this list in the past have discussed the twentieth-century 
resurrection of Babbage, which it seems was promoted by L J Comrie and 
Douglas Hartree, then firmly cemented by Vivian Bowden through Ferranti 
sales literature and the 1953 book /Faster Than Thought/; it was 
certainly /Faster Than Thought /which pushed Lovelace to a prominent if 
subordinate position in the Babbage narrative. Bowden's work, however, 
does not contain the "first programmer" claim, nor anything which it 
seems to me could be easily modified into it; yet the idea must surely 
have taken root somewhere in advance of 1979, when it was given 
(apparently quite uncontentiously) as rationale for the naming of the 
DoD language. I'm wondering, do any listmember have any concrete detail 
on the spread of the characterisation?

All best

On 27/08/2015 15:34, Thomas Haigh wrote:
> Hello SIGCIS,
> Following our recent discussion, it’s fitting that my new article with 
> Mark Priestley puts a toe into matters cultural. “Innovators Assemble” 
> mashes up Isaacson’s /The Innovators/ and Marvel’s /Avengers Assemble/ 
> (as the first movie is known in the UK) to explore the reliance of 
> popular history on superhero narratives and the damage that does to 
> responsible history. Among other things, we critique his posturing as 
> a rescuer of forgotten women, open up some black boxes to argue that 
> Ada Lovelace’s famous table wasn’t actually a program, reposition the 
> “women of ENIAC” as hands-on operators rather than programmers, and 
> dive into some accounting records to reveal that (contrary to the myth 
> that men built hardware and women programmed it) that ENIAC was built 
> by forgotten blue collar women. So it’s an odd mix of perspectives 
> from cultural history, labor history, and technical history.
> It’s in /Communications of the ACM/, so I’ll be interested to see how 
> the computer science community takes it. We’re grateful to the SIGCIS 
> community, including comments made by Janet Abbate during our 
> discussion of Isaacson’s book last year and private exchanges with 
> Brian Randell, Doron Swade, and Laine Nooney.
> Open access, HTML at 
> http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2015/9/191176-innovators-assemble/fulltext 
> (missing some figures)
> Proper PDF from 
> http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2817191.2804228&coll=portal&dl=ACM.
> Best wishes,
> Tom
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