NYT: "Overlooked: Countess Ada Lovelace"--Not Overlooked AT ALL
March 18, 2018, 10:19 PM
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From the New York Times:


Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. Now, we’re adding the stories of remarkable women.


Ada Lovelace

A gifted mathematician who is now recognized as the first computer programmer.


… Lovelace lived during a time when women were not considered to be prominent scientific thinkers, and her skills were often described as masculine.

“With an understanding thoroughly masculine in solidity, grasp and firmness, Lady Lovelace had all the delicacies of the most refined female character,” said an obituary at the time she died.

[Charles] Babbage, who called her the “enchantress of numbers,” once wrote that she “has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects (in our own country at least) could have exerted over it.”

Okay … But Countess Ada Lovelace was neither overlooked during her own lifetime, when she was famous for her mind in Society, nor over the last 40 or 50 years (in the late 1970s the Pentagon named after her its new programming language Ada that it tried to impose on all defense contractors).

She was, like her friend Charles Babbage, a major celebrity in her own time. It hardly hurt that she was the only legitimate child of the most famous man in Europe in the post-Waterloo era, the poet Lord Byron. Nor did it hurt that she was born an aristocrat and married an aristocrat.

In particular, her having a rather masculine intellect made her more renown during her life.

For example, in 1844 a bestseller a anticipating Darwin’s theory of evolution (although not his theory of natural selection) was published anonymously under the title Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Vestiges paved the way for Darwin’s Origin of Species to be so rapidly accepted by educated opinion 15 years later: the war over six-day creationism had been fought in the 1840s. Historian James Secord has written a spectacular book, Victorian Sensation, on the impact that Vestiges made on everybody from Queen Victoria to Abraham Lincoln.

Guessing who the author was became a huge game in educated Britain, with some of the less common suggestions being Charles Darwin and Charles Babbage. But, Secord writes:

Two names dominated gossip in fashionable society when the sensation was at its height: Ada, countess of Lovelace and Byron’s only legitimate daughter; and Sir Richard Vyvyan, a leader of the opposition to the widening of the franchise in the 1832 Reform Bill. Both belonged to the hereditary aristocracy, which shows why the book was often read as emanating from the centers of metropolitan wealth and power. Both were strong possibilities, having written anonymously on the sciences before.

As it turned out to the surprise of most, the real author was a hard-working but fairly obscure Scottish journalist and golf course architect named Robert Chambers, who had come up with the idea that everything is the product of “development” while recovering from overwork by playing golf daily on The Old Course at St. Andrews, a links that had developed over centuries of play without much in the way of intelligent design until about Chambers’ day.

The reason the contributions to the theory of computer science by Lovelace (and Babbage) was overlooked in late 19th and early 20th century was of course because there were no computers. Babbage’s famous (at the time) and well-funded Integral Engine project had failed.

It would be interesting to look into whether Lovelace’s idea that her friend Babbage’s engine could turn into a general purpose computer contributed to Babbage’s notorious problem with specification creep. If he’d been able to say Enough! to what his engine was supposed to do, he might have gotten it finished. But I don’t know if Lovelace’s ideas worsened Babbage’s failings.

Interestingly, Chambers was mostly overlooked during his own lifetime (not revealing himself as the author of the bestseller until decades later), nor since then, although Secord’s book does much to revive the man’s memory.

The link between Chambers’ evolutionary thinking and his obsession with links golf courses that had originally evolved without a designer has likewise been forgotten. This is even though Chambers’ great-grandson, golf architect Sir Guy Campbell, cowrote a history of golf in the 1950s with Darwin’s grandson Bernard Darwin, spelling out how the St. Andrews links had evolved over the eons.

[Comment at]

One could imagine an alternative universe in which golf courses are a prime subject for intellectualizing and thus Chambers is a famous figure in intellectual history. But that’s not the one we live in.