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Communications of the ACM

Historical reflections

Innovators Assemble: Ada Lovelace, Walter Isaacson, and the Superheroines of Computing

Ada Lovelace, portrait

Ada Lovelace

Credit: Alfred Edward Chalon (1840)

Consider two recent blockbuster sequels. Avengers: Age of Ultron, a superhero movie, enjoyed the second strongest opening weekend of all time, behind only its predecessor, Avengers Assemble. The fastest-selling history of computing book ever published is Walter Isaacson's The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. Its sales fall short only in comparison to his previous book, Steve Jobs, which reportedly broke all records for a biography.

Avenging and innovating turn out to have a surprising amount in common. Both require one to assemble a team of superheroes who must work together to defy daunting odds and change the course of human history. Both deploy a cast of characters who have been written about for decades but are now reaching massive audiences. Both feel somewhat overstuffed, as their hugely experienced creators struggle to maintain a light touch while maneuvering a complicated narrative through a vast number of required plot points. Both highlight origin stories, as if understanding the moments at which individuals received their special powers or the circumstances in which particular technologies were first coaxed into operation will always explain their subsequent trajectories.


Liza Loop

I invite you to consider two differences between the social circumstances under which the historical female programmers/operators you write about got into computing and the path we are encouraging girls to follow today. Although Lovelace is an exception, most of the war-years computer women had already left school before they started to work with machines. They may have demonstrated math or mechanical ability earlier but they received their computer training on the job. There were no computer classes in high schools, colleges or universities. (Lovelace was tutored privately so she, too, did not learn math in a crowded classroom). Fast forward to today and our campaigns to get girls into coding. To qualify for a job in this field, girls will have had to brave co-ed classrooms with cliques of boys who pick on geeky girls and cliques of non-geeky girls who are likely to be even more punishing. The pressure against geekiness was even present, although probably less harsh, during my own personal experience in an all girls private high-school. At the 1979 computer literacy project, ComputerTownUSA!, initiated by Bob Albrecht and Ramon Zamora, we found that we had to plan "girls only" events to keep the boys from crowding the girls away from the keyboard. This says nothing about aptitude for the task but does suggest that some "affirmative action" is necessary to create an environment in which most girls will be willing to learn computing.

A second difference in social context is the war effort during the 1940s. Then, women moved into many male-dominated occupations and were considered patriots because the boys were at the front. It was an era of full-employment when all hands (and minds) were needed regardless of gender. Today's climate of unemployment and downward wage pressure amplifies competition which sometime emerges as sexist rationale. Those who dominate a field, in this case, white males, are likely to use any excuse to make the classroom and workplace inhospitable to competitors. Highlighting historic women technologists and contemporary female role models can go a long way toward encouraging today's girls to aspire to STEM careers. In addition, we need to create work environments where boys and men, who are still brought up with an ethic that they should be bringing home the bacon, are not moved to harass girls and women in order to protect their own status.

Betty Toole

I consider this article in Communications not appropriate at this time as it blind-sides Ada Lovelace and her accomplishments. Though the authors raise many legitimate concerns this is not the time to air them when we are preparing for the wonderful events to celebrate Adas 200th birthday. So many people and institutions from Ursula Martin to Sarah Baldwin, to Suw Anderson, to the Anita Borg Institute to the Association of Computing Machinery, Valerie Barr of ACM-W, and many others are all celebrating Women in Computing and the emphasis should be on that.

We wonder why we have not made more progress about engaging women in computing, and it is not because women are not trying. We now need men to step up and be supportive. There are men who are supportive, and we need to celebrate them and their vision of Adas accomplishments. Richard Holmes recent article in Nature is a good place to start. The link is :

I was so upset with Dorothy Steins book, which seems to me to be the bible of people that do not respect or appreciate Adas accomplishments, that I wrote Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers: A Selection from the Letters of Lord Byrons Daughter. It is always better to give people the original sources so that they can decide for themselves what is accurate. One of my friends, who was the editor of Dr Dobbs Journal, wrote a marvelous article which underscore how Adas thinking is a contribution to computer science:

My first two books are now out of print, though a few of the hardback will be available at the conference, but check out what is available: both e book and audio book Ada, The Enchantress of Numbers: Poetical Science are available on Amazon.

I have become increasingly concerned by what I consider the terminal disease of the digital revolution: tunnel vision. It is in that context that I revised my book as an e book and audiobook, Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers: Poetical Science to include activities which broaden our thinking skills. If you are a categorical thinker or a computer you will not enjoy this book, but if you wish to broaden your thinking from building a Mobius strip to building a kaleidoscope, Adas last purchase according to her bankbooks, you will get a multifaceted view of a remarkable woman.

If you enjoyed Georgiana Ferrys excellent broadcasts of Adas letters you will enjoy the audio book Ada, The Enchantress of Numbers: Poetical Science narrated by Rosalind Ashford, which contain all Adas letters to Charles Babbage.

My topic at Oxford on 9 December will be Ada Lovelace Lives Forever: Her Four Questions, because in the end it is the questions that Ada asked that made her a seminal thinker not only in the 19th century but today.

What an amazing array of speakers. Enjoy the conference and the celebration!

Betty Alexandra Toole Ed.D.

Thomas Haigh

Dr. Toole considers it inappropriate for our "Historical Reflections" column to discuss Ada Lovelace around the time of her bicentenary. The suggestion that the anniversary is an inappropriate time for a serious examination of computer history implicitly reflects a particular position on two key questions we raise in the essay. The first: is the history of computing a scholarly field in its own right, not just a way of supporting computer science recruitment? The other question: can accurate and inclusive history grounded in the experiences of ordinary people be as inspiring as comic book history based on celebrating the superhuman accomplishments of a few geniuses?

Only if one assumes, as Toole apparently does, that the answers to these questions are "no" and "no" does it make sense to argue that the Lovelace anniversary must be an occasion for cheerleading in which there is no appropriate place for challenging questions.

Toole's own book provides a useful service by making Lovelace's letters more widely available, and in providing evidence that Stein's biography was at several points unduly harsh in judging Lovelace's competence. The Radio 4 program she links to is an excellent way to hear something of Ada's own voice.

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