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

Andrew Russell arussell at stevens.edu
Fri Sep 4 11:25:56 PDT 2015

Hi James -

Thanks for these really insightful comments.  You (and the others) will probably be interested in a book to be published in the next few months by the new history of computing series from ACM Books.  The title is “Ada’s Legacy: Cultures of Computing from the Victorian to the Digital Age,” and it is co-edited by my Stevens colleague Robin Hammerman and me.  A brief blurb is available from http://books.acm.org/subjects/forthcoming-titles - I’m pasting the text below.

Highlights of the book (that are relevant to your post) include some original art by Sydney Padua; a chapter by Tom Misa on Babbage, Lovelace, and the Bernoulli Numbers; and a several other chapters that assess Ada’s legacy in a variety of realms (literature, popular culture, art, and activism in the 21st century).  We anticipate that the book will be available by the bicentennial of Ada’s birthday in December 2015.  Misa's chapter in particular takes up some (but not all) of the questions you raise in your post.




Ada's Legacy illustrates the depth and diversity of writers, thinkers, and makers who have been inspired by Ada Lovelace, the English mathematician and writer. The volume, which commemorates the bicentennial of Ada's birth in December 1815, celebrates Lovelace's many achievements as well as the impact of her life and work, which reverberated widely since the late nineteenth century. In the 21st century we have seen a resurgence in Lovelace scholarship, due to the growth of interdisciplinary thinking and the expanding influence of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Ada's Legacy is a unique contribution to this scholarship, thanks to its combination of papers on Ada's collaboration with Charles Babbage, Ada's position in the Victorian and Steampunk literary genres, Ada's namesake programming language, Ada's representation in and inspiration of contemporary art, and her continued relevance in discussions about gender and technology in the digital age.

Because of its broad focus on subjects that reach far beyond the life and work of Ada herself, Ada's Legacy will appeal to readers who are curious about her enduring importance in computing and the wider world.

On Sep 4, 2015, at 11:58 AM, James Sumner <james.sumner at manchester.ac.uk<mailto:james.sumner at manchester.ac.uk>> wrote:

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:

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> 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,


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