The career of computer science pioneer Ada Lovelace has been shrouded in mystery since her death in 1852. Even today her contributions to science are often overshadowed by the Victorian equivalent of Twitter gossip about her life. And yet that gossip is part of what made her life so futuristic.
I've just been reading Ada's Algorithm, James Essinger's new biography, and it offers a window on the life of one of the world's first celebrity scientists.
Ada, as she is generally known, lived for 36 brief years in the mid-19th century, leaving behind many letters about her mathematical education and technological insights. Though widely regarded as one of the smartest people in London — where she often attended salons with scientists like Charles Darwin — her only formal publication was a hefty set of "notes" on programming a theoretical computer that her colleague Charles Babbage dubbed The Analytical Engine. Though her contemporaries regarded these notes as merely "interpretations" of Babbage's work, they were in fact what Alan Turing used as a template to write some of the first computer programs nearly a century later.
Today, Ada is widely viewed as the first person to understand that computers could be programmed to do anything — including, as she wrote in her notes, to create music. Babbage thought of his "engines" as calculators, and Ada took his thinking to the next level. And yet a biographer like Essinger is still grappling with the question of whether her work is important. Indeed, the subtitle of his book identifies his subject as "Lord Byron's daughter Ada Lovelace," as if we wouldn't know who she was without her father's name in there too. Other biographies of the scientist have neglected to name her entirely, just calling her "Byron's daughter."
It's tempting to call this sexism, but of course it's far more complicated than that. If you want a crime of pure scientific sexism, I'd direct you to the life of Rosalind Franklin, who discovered the structure of DNA — only to have it lifted by James Watson (who has cheerfully expounded on his dim views of women in many decades since). Ada wasn't ripped off by men, exactly. She was ripped off by celebrity culture.
Though Essinger's biography is disappointingly short on explanations of Ada's scientific work, it's long on gossip. And that's because Ada was the subject of this gossip, both in and out of the media, from the day of her birth onwards. Her father was the poet Lord Byron, whose antics and emo-celebrity could reasonably be compared to Kurt Cobain's in the 1990s. Byron's moody poems about his screwed up life made him famous, as did his insane gambling and drinking habits, as well as his barely-hidden affair with his half-sister. In a last-ditch attempt to pay off his debts and go straight, Byron married the rich, geeky heiress Annabella Milbanke, whose main passions in life were mathematics and religion.
As Essinger tells it, the marriage was doomed from the start. Byron dragged Annabella over to his half-sister's house, and there are strong hints from Annaabella's journal that he tried to push the two women into a threesome with him. Needless to say, neither of them were particularly thrilled about the idea, but the two women forged a kind of friendship out of their shared agony over the hopeless poet.
Annabella's inheritance wouldn't mature for a decade, so the Byrons remained in debt. Roughly a year after their wedding day, Annabella gave birth to Ada, and Byron promptly wrote a self-pitying poem about how Ada would bring him more sadness. A month later, Annabella left him, returning home to her parents with the infant girl who grew up to invent the idea of software. Byron fled the country, trying to escape his creditors, and died without ever meeting his daughter.
You can see now why the press and society were fascinated by Ada. She was the offspring of the ultimate tabloid relationship. And Annabella only fanned the flames of interest by declaring herself the enemy of her terrible husband, and vowing to raise his daughter in a world of pure logic and reason, devoid of all that emo poetry crap that drove her daddy insane. Annabella spent a lot of time rounding up the very best tutors for her daughter. Which was how Ada came to have one of the best mathematical and scientific educations in England, despite not ever going to any of the fancy schools and universities reserved for men.
As an adult, Ada was also dogged by her father's reputation — and, later, by her own. She didn't content herself with retiring from the world to contemplate algebra, as her mother might have hoped she would. Instead, she became best friends with the celebrity scientist Charles Babbage, whose salons were the hottest social ticket for London intelligentsia in the 1830s. Attendees included famous writers like Charles Dickens, actors, scientists like Charles Darwin and Michael Faraday, and even the future queen of England's husband Albert. Ada was a regular at these gatherings, and widely praised for her scary levels of intelligence — as well as her amusing personality. Over time, she became Babbage's collaborator, working with him on his proto-computers, the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine.
The problem was that Babbage just couldn't carry through on his inventions. To build his Difference Engine, Babbage had burned through an enormous amount of money from the British government — and yet he only ever finished a prototype of it. So when he proposed the even more ambitious Analytical Engine, during a period of mass famine in the British Empire, he had no hope of getting any support. At one point Babbage tried to get Prime Minister Peel to fund his work by complaining about how stupid the government was. Misfires like this meant that Babbage's social capital eventually plummeted, and so too did Ada's. Both had invested most of their intellectual energies in a machine that nobody believed in. After publishing her notes on the Analytical Engine, Ada's life read more like a gossip blog than a curriculum vita.
Ada's greatest invention was, in fact, a work of speculation. Without a computer to run her program, she and her contemporaries would never know how prescient she had been. Unable to advance further in her scientific work, Ada took to doing mathematics in her spare time — and gambling. A lot.
Reading about the last decade of her life, you get the sense that Ada went in the direction of many celebrity has-beens. She's frittering away her money, focusing on personal conflicts and love affairs. The public has rejected the importance of her work, and now she has nothing left to do with herself. Likewise, Babbage became a kind of shadow of his former self, surfacing in the media only as a punchline in a Charles Dickens story written in the 1860s about how Babbage would fly into a rage when his neighbors played loud music. Ada and Babbage lived at a time when scientists truly could become celebrities, and they experienced both the highs and the lows of fame.
Ada died of cancer when she was 36, after a long and painful period of illness. It's hard to say what she might have accomplished if she hadn't become sick — or if she'd somehow raised the money to build the Analytical Engine and program it. She was certainly forgotten for many decades, or remembered only as a glamorous footnote to Lord Byron's life.
The problem wasn't just that she was a woman at a time when women in science were few and far between. She had also devoted herself to a branch of science that wouldn't blossom until a century after her death. But she was enough of a celebrity that she was never quite forgotten. And these days, I suspect, far more people have heard of Ada Lovelace than Lord Byron. Her work has far more relevance today than Byron's, and her life — though poorly documented — was far more intriguing. Byron belonged to the romantic past, and Ada to a future of thinking machines.
Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9 and this is her column. She's the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Follow her on Twitter, or email her.