Why Ada Lovelace Day shouldn’t just be about science

On the second Tuesday in October, we celebrate Ada Lovelace Day to commemorate the great mathematician and writer who massively influenced computing history. We often use Ada Lovelace Day to highlight the past and present achievements of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). But focusing solely on STEM means we miss the most important parts of Ada’s story.


Firstly, I’ll recap Ada’s background for context, though I’d also recommend reading either of these articles for more information.

Augusta Ada Gordon (Countess of Lovelace, after her marriage) was the daughter of Romantic poet Lord Byron and Baroness Anne Milbanke. Lord Byron was well-known for his adventures and affairs, and was famously described as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”. (Researchers believe that Byron probably experienced bipolar disorder). He left his family when Ada was four months old, then died when she was eight years old.

Anne Milbanke was highly educated in philosophy, maths, and science. Hurt by Byron’s abandonment, she remained distant from Ada, who was instead looked after by her grandmother. Milbanke continually feared Ada would develop the same “insanity” as Byron, and so pushed Ada into studying maths and science in the belief that it would stop Ada from developing that “insanity”.

Ada idolised Bryon despite (or perhaps because of) never meeting him. She remained interested in him, and in literature and poetry, for her whole life. Ada spent many of her teenage years dealing with chronic illness which left her housebound at least once. She was educated by tutors, and through correspondence with elite academics, which she could access due to Milbanke’s social class and connections.

Ada Lovelace in 1836.

Milbanke’s attempts to mould Ada into the opposite of Byron were luckily unsuccessful. Rather than learning about only science and maths, Ada studied everything from poetry to maths to flying machines. She grew up surrounded by authors, scientists, and intellectuals in many fields, and named her style of learning “poetical science”.

The Analytical Engine

When Ada was 17, her tutor Mary Somerville, introduced her to Charles Babbage, who was in the process of building his Difference Engine. (Somerville also has an interesting history – the world scientist was created to describe her). Ada’s interest in the Difference Engine kickstarted a long-term friendship and correspondence. As a result, when Babbage moved on to developing the perpetually-unfinished Analytical Engine, which was supposed to use a complex system of punched cards, Ada was closely involved. The only written version of Babbage’s ideas were lecture notes taken down in French, so Ada, who spoke fluent French, translated these notes for publication. With Babbage’s permission, Ada added her own extensive knowledge about the machine to the manuscript. This resulted in the “Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator”, published in 1842, when Ada was 27.

An image of Ada’s notes, found at http://blog.stephenwolfram.com

The Sketch contained Babbage’s intricate descriptions of the engine’s construction and mechanics. It also featured Ada’s visions of what the machine could do in fields beyond mathematics. She realised that anything which could be expressed as numbers could then be calculated and manipulated in the same way as numbers, and so proposed that future machines may be able to compose music, decode language, or process images. Ada also included the first algorithm – an instruction about how to calculate a set of numbers known as Bernoulli numbers – which can be seen as the first example of computer programming.

The Science of Operations

Arguably, Ada’s notes not only developed an algorithm but also the idea of studying computing itself. This stance comes from Ada’s description of the Analytical Engine – “an embodying of the science of operations”. The science of operations describes the study of computing itself, and Ada’s description clearly indicates her belief that it is a separate area of study.

But the science of operations, as derived from mathematics more especially, is a science of itself, and has its own abstract truth and value; just as logic has its own peculiar truth and value, independently of the subjects to which we may apply its reasonings and processes.

Ada Lovelace

So why did Ada, rather than Babbage or anyone else, make this pioneering connection?

To me, the answer lies in her educational background, and also in the union she developed between her imagination and intellect. I believe that Ada’s education in a wide range of subjects, and her love of multiple fields, let her synthesise ideas which more singularly focused engineers and mathematicians might consider irrelevant. Her “poetical science” bridged ideas that literature or engineering alone couldn’t connect.

It’s impossible to pin someone’s success on just one cause. Of course Ada’s intellect, ability, and determination is the foundation of her success. But these qualities were influenced by her personal history, such as the effect of her chronic illnesses and her attachment to the idea of Byron.  Then there are factors which Ada had no control over: the social connections available due to her family’s status; Somerville’s intellect and her friendship with Babbage; Milbanke’s insistence that Ada studied maths, science and French; Milkbanke’s distant treatment of Ada; and even Byron’s abandonment. (Biographers of Ada suggest from her own affairs and scandals that she may have also experienced bipolar disorder, further connecting her history to Byron’s).

All of these pieces – good, bad or cruel – are part of the process that led Ada Lovelace to develop the knowledge and therefore the vision she had.

The problem with Ada Lovelace Day

Although Ada Lovelace Day is often seen as a celebration of women in STEM, I’d argue that making it solely about STEM sells Ada’s achievements short. Celebrating Ada Lovelace only as a woman in STEM means ignoring two valuable ideas.

Firstly, Ada was a science communicator as well as a scientist. In the Sketch, she was both a translator and an explainer of Babbage’s ideas; she gave context to his descriptions and clearer details about what his ideas signified, and so was instrumental to those ideas being published and known about. I’d love to see more focus on this part of her work, and to see her representing science communication as well as scientific achievement.

More importantly, talking about Ada only as a “woman in STEM” can imply that she is a “woman of STEM” – in other words, that her achievements belong only to STEM. By doing that, we hide that her vision and her success were influenced by the union of humanities and sciences which ran through her childhood and adulthood. If Ada had only focused what we now call STEM, as her mother had wished, then I doubt she would have made the connections that have left such a legacy.

Ada Lovelace shouldn’t just be known as a female scientist, but also as an example of why STEM, humanities, and arts need to be connected and not divided by default. Her story shows why forcing people to “pick sides” can block the imaginative leaps that synthesise ideas, slowing our discoveries down. Her creative leap shows why we should focus on unifying and connecting knowledge across fields, rather than dividing subjects into “STEM” and “everything else”.

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