Ada Lovelace is of great interest to many Steampunk enthusiasts because of her involvement with the first computing machine and her work that was so far ahead of its time. From ability to the things she conceptualized, few people came close to her foresight and talent. She also had a family tree filled with famous artists and thinkers, was a countess, and lived elaborately. You can’t ask for much more from a Steampunk Princess!
Now, I’m not a math person. I’m not a person who enjoys nearly anything that involves numbers. Although I enjoy learning about her life and am amazed at her accomplishments, I can’t really wrap my head around the ins and outs of her work. So, rather than trying to explain what made her famous, I thought I’d focus on five aspects of her life that are most interesting to me. If you understand her work more clearly please share it in the comments.
1) She was related to famous free thinkers of the time, including Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. Let’s review.
-When Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley famously ran away together, Mary Shelley’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont, went along.
-The trio began a European adventure that led them to Switzerland so that Claire could meet up with her lover. The man was Lord Byron himself, who was vacationing in Switzerland after being left by his wife following the birth of their child.
-This child was Ada Lovelace, known at the time as Augusta Ada Byron.
-Byron would go on to also have a child with Claire before quite cruelly abandoning her (he wasn’t that great of a dude).
So this makes Ada sort-of a step-niece of sorts to the author of everyone’s favorite Steampunk novel, but I won’t try to explain (or figure out) how.
2) She was originally driven by her desire to fly.
It’s no wonder that so many Steampunk aficionados admire Ada Lovelace. After all, she was fantasizing about a flying machine in the 1800s and what she came up with would awe and delight many of our readers. She first became interested in figuring out a way to fly when she was just 12. A true scholar, she took it up as a study, recording how well she thought various materials would do for wings and recording them in a handwritten book she titled “Flyology.”
The problem? Her mother was, shall we say, less than supportive. Having come to believe that her husband, Lorn Byron was mentally unstable and that madness ran in his family, she was terrified that Ada would catch the illness and forbade her from any creative pursuits, seeing creativity as a trait she had in common with her father. Instead, young Ada was meant to spend hours a day studying math, music, and French. While her strict upbringing did result in her becoming quite accomplished, it is interesting to think about what would have happened had she been free to explore her creative side or develop the flying machine.
3) Mark your calendars! Ada Lovelace Day is October 15
Despite Ada’s legacy as the first computer programmer, there has historically been a lack of female-identifying professions in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) professions. One of the efforts to address this disparity has been to highlight female contributions to science and math, providing girls with female role models. Ada Lovelace Day is one initiative. Held on the second Tuesday of each October, the purpose of the day is to not only highlight the life and contributions of Ada Lovelace but all women in STEM professions.
Ada Lovelace Day has caught on. Typically it includes a “Science Cabaret” in London as well as other live events held around the world. This year things are being taken virtually. If you’d like to participate, check out FindingAda.com.
4) She was pretty brilliant
And she was also thorough. As some readers may know, she took up a partnership with Charles Babbage to explore the possibilities of a computing machine. Ada was fascinated with Babbage’s work almost to the point of obsession. One of Babbage’s projects was the development of the Analytical Machine, the first design for a calculator that used punch cards to program and communicate and deliver output.
One of Ada’s claims to fame was completing a French translation of an Italian article on Babbage’s machine at Babbage’s request so that it could be published in a Swiss journal. He also welcomed her to include her own thoughts on the machine. Months of work ensued, with Ada’s thoughts ending up as notes that were three times the length of the article itself.
The notes became so popular and acclaimed that they became known simply as “The Notes.” They are considered to be an explanation of the possibilities of computer programming (outside of mathematical calculations), which is one reason so many people refer to her as the first computer programmer.
5) Just like Mary Shelley, people tried to discredit her work
As I covered in the blog post on Mary Shelley, many people over the years tried to prove that her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, had actually written the majority of Frankenstein. Sadly, Ada suffered the same fate. One Babbage historian went so far as to say that she suffered from delusions about her talent and ability and that has led to her contributions being exaggerated.
Keep in mind that it was Babbage himself who asked Ada to both undertake the translation of the Italian document and also to add her own thoughts to it. Dozens of letters also survive between Ada and Babbage in which her notes and the translation were discussed
In a 2013 The New Yorker article, “Ada Lovelace: The First Tech Visionary”, writer Betsy Morais gives a plausible explanation for why there has been speculation around Ada’s contributions. She quotes Ada Initiative founder Valerie Aurora saying “ “As people realized how important computer programming was, there was a greater backlash and an attempt to reclaim it as a male activity. In order to keep that wealth and power in a man’s hands, there’s a backlash to try to redefine it as something a woman didn’t do, and shouldn’t do, and couldn’t do.”
Have you ever been to a Steampunk event where you saw Ada Lovelace being celebrated? Share below!
Want to create an Ada Lovelace look of your own? Start with these Steampunk Threads pieces: