The curious afterlife of Ada Lovelace

by Victoria James

Celebrity is a fickle thing, as Ada Lovelace’s famous father, the poet Lord Byron, learned to his cost — sexual scandals and seesawing public opinion drove him into exile and to his death. For his daughter, however, the ups and downs of fame have mostly been posthumous.

Recent years, a century and a half after her death in November 1852 at the age of 36, have witnessed a fierce (and often mudslinging) battle over Ada Lovelace’s reputation. Her disputed claim to fame rests on the assertion made by her champions that she was the first computer programmer.

Does Ada deserve the title?

The pro-Ada faction draws substance for its claims from its heroine’s only significant publication, a translation of a French-language account of Charles Babbage’s “Analytical Engine” accompanied by her own notes and tables showing how the engine, a prototypical computer, might be “programmed.”

Detractors argue that Babbage had already devised the programming method and that, furthermore, he likely did most of the preparatory work on Ada’s tables. Ada herself, they assert, had trouble with basic calculus.

Normally such debates are left in the realm of academe, but in 1997 a film was released that brought Ada to the attention of the media. Followed up by various book-length publications, the result was a row about Ada’s reputation that spilled over into newspapers, television channels and the pages of magazines such as The New Yorker.

Now, just as the fuss is dying down in the United States and Britain, the movie that set it all off has come to Japan.

“Conceiving Ada,” directed by Lynne Hershmann Leeson, a professor at the University of California, Davis, is indeed cleverly conceived, but pretentiously executed. The narrative weaves two strands — “like the structure of DNA’s double helix,” the original production notes claimed — to tell a tale of a modern-day female computer genius, Emmy Coer (Francesca Faridany), who is obsessed with the life of Ada Lovelace (Tilda Swinton).

Coer has devised a virtual “agent” (a metal bird named Charlene, if you will) that “flies” through cyberspace retrieving information — and, somehow, scenes from Ada’s life. These scenes, thanks to Swinton’s intense performance, are compelling.

They’re also highly inaccurate.

The attributed source for Hershmann Leeson’s film is a collection of Ada’s letters, “Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers” (1992), edited by historian Betty Toole.

Toole is one of the “voices of reason” of the pro-Ada party, urging restraint in the making of grandiose claims for Ada, all the better to secure the recognition that she does deserve. “It’s a fantasy,” Toole remarked when “Conceiving Ada” was released. “Lynne tells a story which fits her needs as a filmmaker.”

It’s a shame she didn’t tell that to the critics.

The film’s reviewers unquestioningly trotted out the version of Ada’s life offered by Hershmann Leeson. Apart from getting basic facts wrong (all the major papers stated that Ada died at age 37, not 36), only sensational and inflated assessments of Ada’s career made it into the plot synopses.

“Ada Byron . . . was a mathematical genius who created what’s now credited as the first computer program and . . . slept around with more men than Madonna” ran the breathy intro of the San Francisco Chronicle review.

Worse was the New York Times write-up. “A machine called the Analytic [sic] Engine, which [Ada] conceived with a collaborator, Charles Babbage, is today recognized as a direct forerunner of the modern computer,” wrote the paper’s critic, Stephen Holden, clearly no rocket scientist himself.

What’s wrong with Holden’s version of events? For a start, Ada didn’t “conceive” of the Analytical Engine, Babbage did. Ada understood his work perhaps better than anyone — she was even a kind of muse, who wrote in a letter that he should submit to her “fairy guidance” — but Babbage had designed his engines before he met Ada, and there is no evidence that a single detail was altered at her suggestion. In short, there was no “collaboration.”

The year that “Conceiving Ada” was released also saw the publication of a book by “cyberfeminist” scholar Sadie Plant. “Zeros + Ones: Digital Women + The New Technology” went even further in its claims. Leaving Babbage out of the equation entirely, Plant wrote about “Ada’s Analytical Engine.”

A backlash was inevitable — and it wasn’t long coming.

“The Bride of Science,” a biography of Ada by British writer and broadcaster Benjamin Woolley that appeared in 1999 (2001 in the United States), is perhaps the best account to date of Ada’s life. It’s certainly the most judicious. Woolley largely avoids the “was she/wasn’t she” question, instead delivering a rounded portrait of his subject.

For many reviewers, Woolley’s balanced appraisal of Ada provided an opportunity to set the record straight. Some, though, did so with a suspicious excess of zeal — later dubbed “Ada-bashing” by an exasperated Toole.

The most high-profile bashing was that meted out by Jim Holt in an article published in The New Yorker (26 Feb. 2001). Ada, Holt concluded, was merely a “nervy young woman, a poet’s daughter, who saw herself as a fairy.” Her contribution to the dawn of the computer era lay in being its “original publicist.”

What would Ada have made of all this? She was anxious to leave her name in history, so she would doubtless have appreciated the efforts made since Holt’s article — by such as Toole — to keep in the public eye a realistic but positive assessment of her contribution to computing.

But as her account of the reception of Babbage’s engines shows, Ada was her father’s daughter in her understanding of the fickle nature of the public.

“In considering any new subject,” she wrote, “there is frequently a tendency, first, to overrate what we find to be already interesting or remarkable; and, second, by a sort of natural reaction, to undervalue the true state of the case, when we do discover that our notions have surpassed those that were really tenable.”

She may or may not have written the first computer program, but Ada Lovelace certainly penned a prescient critique of the media.