Today is Ada Lovelace day so I’ve been digging around for an Australian connection to the woman often described as the first programmer. It turns out there is a little one.
Ada Lovelace’s role in the history of computing is inextricably linked to that of Charles Babbage; and Babbage himself was really drawn out of some obscurity by an Australian historian from the University of Sydney, Allan Bromley. So there’s the link.
Sadly Bromley was one of many writers, all strangely enough male, to deride Lovelace’s contribution. If you dig deep enough it does seem as if there is some question over the provenance of the programs which lead to the ‘first programmer’ appellation, but far, far less over her visions of what computers could become. And there’s no question she was a deeply talented woman.
Bromley himself is an interesting character not only for his work on Babbage, but also because he built the first working model of the wonderful Antikythera mechanism. In doing so he demonstrated just how amazing the Greek scientists and engineers were; but also just how much we lost when we descended into the dark ages and could not reproduce that level of technology until a millennium had passed.
But anyway, today is Ada Lovelace’s day: A day named in her honour to celebrate the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths – and at that level her legacy is enduring. It is sad that so many question-marks hang over her contributions; but maybe that makes her an even more apt icon of women in STEM, because that scepticism about their capacity to contribute is exactly what so many talented women struggle with daily. I can’t help but think that even the standard, widely-used image of Lovelace which shows her heavily made-up in Spanish lace does a disservice to her legacy (and that’s why I’m not using it).
It’s easy to forget that even in the 1800s it was possible, although far from easy, for a woman to make significant scientific contributions. If not by Lovelace, then this is aptly demonstrated by one of Lovelace’s own mentors, the fabulously gifted Mary Fairfax Somerville. Somerville’s many contributions make her a perfect role-model for women in STEM, but on top of that the actual word ‘scientist’ was coined in relation to her.
Maybe the lesson we should be taking from Lovelace, Sommerville and others is that throughout history there have been brilliant women who have managed, in spite of society’s active efforts to hinder them, to achieve in science, technology, engineering and maths. And just think about how much more could have been achieved if society had embraced their contributions. Think of how much we’ve lost by not accepting and lauding women’s contributions to STEM. And think of how much we’ll gain if we learn from the lessons of the past and accept women and their contributions at face value.