11 thoughts on “Surprise quiz!

  1. Oops, extra credit: it is surprising because it involves math and science and scary metal wheels that turn, and we know these are not places for ladies.

  2. For some of the answer, do go here:

    You are right, Jess, that what is surprising is the combination of her role and the conviction that women can’t do that sort of thing. And maybe more, but that’s what I had in mind.

    Aaron, thanks for your comment. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, depending on your point of view) the physical realization of a computer is not really necessary for writing a program. But it would be interesting to see if that was as well understood in her day as it is in ours.

  3. Strictly speaking, computers had been built in Lady Lovelace’s day: Babbage’s Difference Engine and (incomplete) models of his proposed Analytical Engine. The program written by Lady Lovelace was for the Analytical Engine. There’s a sense, of course, in which Babbage and others had already done programming for the Engines; what makes her contribution distinctive is that she recognized that the theory of the Analytical Engine was a mathematical field in its own right, and thus was the first to recognize that systematic procedures for the machine could be treated as more than just manipulations of the machine itself — it could be an object of mathematical study. Thus she was the first to conceive of a program for the machine in the context of what was recognizably the theoretical context of programming rather than mechanical engineering. (Those who like this sort of thing can find Lady Lovelace’s program in Note G of her translation of Menabrea’s memoir on the Analytical Engine.)

  4. jj, I have a soft spot for Ada Lovelace, in part because of her accomplishments, and also for the special status that her namesake language holds in my trade. In hardcore geek circles, overwhelmingly composed of poorly socialized males — does that ring a bell? — who usually hold a disparaging/fearful view of women, the mere mention of Ada can lighten up a few eyes. I still get a kick out of telling them its name comes from the first software programmer, who just happened to be a woman. The jaw-dropping is fun enough, but my fondest memory about her is the visible boost of confidence it lent to a female intern when I told her that story.

    So I think Ada Lovelace’s story could be put to a better use than trivia. I’m emphatically not aiming that piece of bitterness at you, jj, I know you know better, but your post was spot on because if she’s mentioned at all in what passes for history of computer science, it’s just as an amusing piece of trivia whereas men of far lesser influence are given royalty treatment. If that makes me want to head-butt the nearest wall, knowing first-hand what women can bring to my particular trade makes their being driven away by — self-censored — people’s prejudice reason enough to be bitter (not to mention developing a borderline-psychotic hostility for innocent walls).

  5. Thanks so much, Counterfnord. Great points. I should do an “extended answer” piece of her, and will!

  6. You’re most welcome, jj. I feel like adding that she played a part in my getting into feminism, as reading about her struck a chord and made me take my riot grrrl involvement more seriously.

  7. And she did all that by the age of 37– in addition to having 3 children, lots of affairs, and a drug addiction! Yikes.

  8. Without getting into quibbles as to whether the difference engine counted as a computer, I should say that in commenting that Lovelace wrote a program for a computer (the analytical engine) which didn’t exist, I did not mean to disparage her accomplishment in any way; writing a program for a non-existent computer is probably harder.

  9. AB, I didn’t think for a minute that you were disparaging her! Much of computer science is about the computing, rather than the computer, and that seems true of Ada’s work.

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