A Tale of Ada Lovelace, Women in Tech and Steve Jobs' Biographer

PreviewAdaGirl Talk, Woking, England — Suw Charman-Anderson had never heard of Ada Lovelace, the brilliant daughter of the poet Lord Byron, when she dreamed up a project to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and math.

But after learning of Lovelace, Charman-Anderson, an author, social media consultant and self-described technologist who was frustrated by the dearth of women speakers at tech conferences, thought it fitting that her call to action be named after the woman recognized as the first computer programmer. What better role model than a 19th century mathematician who foresaw the digital computing age but remains little known today?

Since 2009, Ada Lovelace Day has encouraged people around the world to write stories about women whose work they admire, while raising awareness of Lovelace. This year's event is tentatively set for October.

Lovelace, who died in 1852 from cancer at the age of 36, may yet become a household name if Walter Isaacson, author of the best-selling biography of Steve Jobs, follows through on a plan to write a book about her. She "was the first person to come up with the concept that a computer, a computing machine, like the difference engine, could have software written for it to make it do things," Isaacson said at a December gathering of the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. "She, like Steve Jobs, stands at the intersection of arts and technology."

Isaacson said the idea for a bio of Lovelace came to him from his daughter, a computer science student. "I actually think that women have been left out for a long while of engineering and the sciences," he said. "Women in technology will be this century's wave and I might as well get on it, being a guy, and get Ada Lovelace her moment in the sun."

Lovelace certainly deserves the recognition. Born Augusta Ada Byron in 1815, she never met her father — her parents parted ways right after she was born. Instead, she was raised by her smart and strong-willed mother, Anne Isabella Milbanke. Noted for her intellect, Annabella, as she was known, was dubbed by Byron as "The Princess of Parallelograms." Milbanke encouraged her daughter to study mathematics, in part to keep her away from the poetical world of her father. Lovelace soon earned praise from other scholars, including noted mathematician Charles Babbage, who dubbed Lovelace "The Enchantress of Numbers."

Lovelace was fascinated by Babbage's proposed Analytical Engine, a general-purpose, mechanical computing machine. In 1842, she started translating a paper about the engine and wrote extensive notes that ended up being three times longer than the original paper, according to a 1994 biography of Lovelace by Mary Dodson Wade. Those notes are now recognized as containing the first computer algorithms.

One Thing New's Connie Guglielmo spoke to Charman-Anderson about Lovelace, misogyny, women in tech, and Steve Jobs' biographer.

Where did the idea for Ada Lovelace Day come from?

For ages there had been discussion in the tech world about how there were no women speakers at tech conferences. Where are the women? It was starting to get really frustrating.

There were a lot of really misogynistic articles around at that time from pretty leading voices in the tech community, basically people who — How do I say this politely? — were not as mindful as they should be about gender issues.

At the same time, a piece of research from a psychologist named Penelope Lockwood came out that said that women need female role models more than men need male role models.

So I thought one thing we can do is raise the profile of women in technology. If you talk about their achievements, slowly and surely you will raise their profile. They will learn about people they can look up to, people who can act as an inspiration to them.

How did you hear about Ada Lovelace?

I was trying to find a name for [the project]. I was talking with a male friend of mine who said you should name if after the first programmer — Ada Lovelace. That's when I read up on her and her story.

You have a woman, at a time when women were seriously not supposed to think —who were basically told if you read too many books, your brain might explode —you have one of the brightest minds not only matching her peers, but in her imagination coming up with ideas about how technology could work and then surpassing her peers.

As a figurehead for women in tech, you could not pick a more perfect person.

Has there been progress in increasing the profiles of women since the first Ada Lovelace Day, when you got almost 2,000 people to call out women they admire?

My attitude is that this is not a quick fix. This is not something where you press a button and you write a blog post and `Hey, we're all good now.' The reality of the situation is that we're going to have to keep plugging away at this possibly for years. As depressing as that is, opinions don't change over night.

When you look at the numbers, there's still a gulf in terms of earnings. There's a massive gulf in terms of power. When you look at who's on the board at top tech companies, there are hardly any women and those that are are not viewed as technical women. If you look at someone like Marissa Mayer at Google, you still have people saying she's not a proper techie. What do you think she is then? A banana?

What do you think about Walter Isaacson — a male author — being the one who may end up bringing Lovelace into the mainstream?

It's not so much his gender that's important, but his stature. There have been female biographers of Ada Lovelace and I don't suppose for a second that anyone has ever heard of them. The fact that it's someone of Walter Isaacson's stature means it will get attention.

I've been completely agnostic as to who joins into Ada Lovelace Day. I don't care if they're male, female. I don't care if they're small blue aliens with green spots. What's important is that we all speak up about what we see.

In a realistic manner, you have to admit that men still wield a lot more power than women. They have more reach. They still have more influence. I'm always happy when a high-profile man gets involved in Ada Lovelace Day because I'll take all the support I can get. When people like [tech publisher and open-source advocate] Tim O'Reilly supports it, it's great because he's got such a huge following.

It's not women celebrating women. It has to be about men celebrating women, too. — CG

Ada Lovelace portrait courtesy of William Henry Mote [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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