I missed Ada Lovelace Day, or ALD as it is respectfully referred to by technology geeks who speak in three letter acronyms.
Ironically, I was on my computer on October 13th and it passed me by. It didn’t pop up on my Facebook events page and shamefully was not pre-coded into Google Calendar. And since it has nothing to do with Covid or Donald Trump, it did not make the nightly news.
Ada Lovelace Day is the world-wide recognition of women in the sciences, named after Ada Lovelace, who is credited as the first computer programmer. The day celebrates the achievements of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, commonly referred to as STEM.
Since STEM is not a three-letter-acronym, I can only assume it was coined by a man of letters.
Shouldering the legacy as the world’s first computer programmer is not all it is cracked up to be. It is true that Ada Lovelace paved the way for the computer revolution which put a man on the moon and gave us life changing applications like World of Warcraft. However, she also inadvertently gave us 800 numbers to technical support guys named Bob in Mumbai.
And to my mind, crediting Ava Lovelace as the first computer programmer, while laudable, is a disservice to her real achievements. Her contribution to science and technology was significantly more prescient and strategic.
Ada was born to a pragmatic and mathematically-minded mother and a mentally unbalanced, mercurial, and philandering father who also happened to be the celebrated poet, Lord Byron.
By way of relevant comparison, I would like to point out that I don’t know a single line of poetry written by Lord Byron. I do, however, know how to reboot a computer.
Ada was encouraged by her mother to follow mathematics because she worried that young Ada might be genetically predisposed to madness. This was in the 1800s, remember, long before scoring an 800 on the madness section of the SAT warranted acceptance to MIT.
Enter mathematician, inventor, and man-without-a-comb, Charles Babbage, who designed a complex, 50 ton steam-powered calculator the size of a locomotive that twirled and twitched rotating columns of complex gears to generate strings of numbers that were somehow useful.
The machine was never built because Charles Babbage was an engineer, not a marketer. His dry sounding “Analytical Engine” did not come with earbuds or a charger.
Ada Lovelace befriended Charles Babbage. He shared with her the design for his Analytical Engine and she impressed him with her intelligence and grasp of mathematics. He often referred to her as “the enchantress of numbers”.
He was never publicly shamed on Twitter for this Victorian, paternalistic label. It was the 1800s, remember.
More than anyone at the time, Ada recognized the iBabbage for what it truly was: a large, unwieldy, and impractical computer. She saw well beyond his enormous calculator the machine’s revolutionary potential to code operations and relationships in a way that could enable, say, European techno music or altered photoshop images or intelligent refrigerators.
If only the damn thing could be placed in a rollback desk or a vest fob pocket, she thought. It was the 1800s, remember.
In 1842, Charles Babbage mansplained his Analytical Engine to a roomful of steampunks at the University of Turin. An Italian engineer named Luigi Menabrea, who would later become Prime Minister of Italy, published his vague understanding of Babbage’s Analytical Engine in the Bibliothèque Universelle de Genèveto, presumably because Popular Mechanics was not yet in publication.
This presented problems because Menabrea didn’t fully understand the lecture and he wrote his article in French, requiring a significant amount of reverse engineering to accurately elucidate the Analytic Engine. Since Lady Lovelace was fluent in both French and the Engine, Babbage asked her to translate the article back into English so that he could better understand what he had invented.
She not only corrected mistakes, but added her own thoughts as well, including an example of how the Engine could be programmed to find Bernoulli numbers. Until that time, nobody was aware that Bernoulli numbers were even missing. It was the 1800s, remember.
But it was that translated publication and her attendant notes that gave Ada Lovelace bragging rights as the first computer programmer, even though she never owned a computer or a keyboard, and was afraid of mice.
And now, one hundred and seventy years later, sitting at my computer which she helped make possible, I neglected to recognize Ada Lovelace Day as it passed.
As stuffy and difficult as studying science is, I believe we should encourage young women to pursue STEM fields. And not because we need more women programmers, although we do.
No, we need more women in science and technology because they are the ones best equipped to explain this crap in a way that men like me understand. In English. With a clear vision of what is possible and not what exists.
But we also need men to do this too.
Because despite being 2020, it is still the 1800s, remember.