Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day: An Introduction

October 13 is #ALD15, a worldwide celebration of female researchers, teachers, technicians, assistants working in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM). To kick off our University campaign, #UoBInspired #ALD15, we at the BDC thought we should probably tell you what it’s all about! Before we begin our rollout of the inspirational women working in our own, local STEMM fields, here’s a little background on who Ada Lovelace was and what led to her status as a modern-day symbol of women working with and around technology.

Ada Lovelace, the bright and mathematically-inclined daughter of the erratic poet Lord Byron, lived an intriguing, productive, and sadly short-lived life, dead from cancer by the age of 36. Her name was actually Augusta Ada King, named Countess of Lovelace after her marriage to William King, Earl of Lovelace; she is known these days mainly as Ada Lovelace. Renowned for her work with Charles Babbage on the Analytical Engine, a prototypical machine that contributed to the invention of today’s computer, Lovelace’s published a set of elaborate and thorough notes which in turn provided the inspiration for Alan Turing’s work on modern day computers in the 1940s. Her publication is still available today, simply entitled Notes, and is widely considered the first computer program. She was only 27 when the notes were published. Babbage described her mathematical powers as “higher than of any one[sic] he knew”, and despite her tempestuous and wild social life – a series of love affairs, gambling debt, and a fractured relationship with her family – she remains a powerful symbol for modern women in technology and engineering. Lovelace herself dubbed her own work “poetical science”, and her life as “a bride of science” in which she married her love of maths with her imaginative spirit.

While Lovelace excelled at her career and contributed widely to her contemporary intellectual circles, her personal life was equally alluring. Estranged from her father, who died when she was eight years old, Lovelace was raised in the cloak of scandal: she was viewed as the outcome of divorce and a product of single-parenting, and associated with the allegations surrounding her father’s immoral behaviour. Famously, despite her father being at the centre of Victorian society gossip even after his death, Lovelace did not see a picture of him until her twentieth birthday, as her mother reportedly kept their family portrait covered in a green shroud. Lovelace was raised mostly by her grandmother and did not have a close relationship with her mother. Her childhood was riddled with illness, and existing correspondence suggests she suffered from a distinct lack of a maternal nurturing.

Today, Lovelace’s legacy lives on in both the computers we type on and the correspondence she left behind. She was a complicated and compelling figure who traversed boundaries, as woman, scientist, daughter, mother and lover.  In the vein of great scientific minds such as her famous male counterparts Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, and even Richard Dawkins, her writings express an appreciation for the mystery and magic of science, and so of living and reality, and in this she truly represents the poetry in maths, science and technology. In a letter to her neighbor and friend Andrew Crosse she describes and champions interdiscplinarity: “The intellectual, the moral, the religious seem to me all naturally bound up and interlinked together in one great and harmonious whole… There is too much tendency to making separate and independent bundles of both the phyiscal and the moral facts of the universe”. This seems a fitting exclamation for a woman who did not like to be bundled up or boundaried herself, and who lived a contradictory life of scandal and genius in which she both broke the rules, but also set them.

Read more about Ada Lovelace Day here.

Join in the University of Bristol’s celebrations by tagging #UoBInspired and #ALD15. Check out the full list of events, and follow our blog throughout the day to read the stories of our own inspirational ladies in STEMM.