Our theme for the month of June is “Celebrities and Me.” Writers were asked to select and write about a celebrity with whom they feel some connection.
In 1816, Ada Lovelace saw her father—the famous, scandalous George Gordon, Lord Byron—for the last time. She was only a few months old. By the time Ada turned eight, her father was dead, and her mother had begun scrubbing every trace of notoriety out of the Byron family name. But by the time Ada turned thirty, she had established her own place in history. In an 1843 paper, Ada wrote what many call the world’s first computer program.
I first met Ada in a fictional setting: Jordan Stratford’s The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, which features a young Ada and a young Mary Wollstonecraft (the writer and protofeminist) solving crimes together. I devoured the series’ first book after picking it up on a whim. It was a quick, fun read, but I couldn’t forget its real characters—especially Ada, who I’d never heard of before.
In 1815, Ada’s father had married Anna Isabella “Annabella” Milkbanke in hopes of escaping his ever-encroaching debts. Anabella had married in hopes of reforming Regency society’s most illustrious bad boy. But when Annabella discovered the full truth of her husband’s many affairs, both her goals and her husband’s goals became impossible. The couple legally separated. Lord Byron took himself to Europe. Lady Byron took baby Ada to raise (mostly) as she wished.
Anabella fixated on nurturing every last speck of her husband’s nature out of Ada. Imagination was dangerous; logic was safe. At Annabella’s command, math and science became the bulk of little Ada’s studies.
Ada, for her part, adored whatever knowledge she could absorb. She read voraciously, and at age twelve she started drawing up plans for a steam-powered flying machine. Even a debilitating year of illness could not slow her mind. Flights of fancy were off-limits, but what if imagination and logic could be combined?
An 1836 portrait of Ada presents an elegant woman wrapped in all the jewelry and fabrics status can buy. In both an 1840 painting and an 1843 daguerreotype, a feminine, floral Ada stares demurely into the distance. Her hair twists into a ridiculously Victorian updo, adorned with even more flowers. These Adas are beautiful, lovely, impressive, but few would imagine them hunched at a desk, scribbling formulas and debating artificial intelligence.
By 1833, Ada began the business of every young noble woman: finding a husband. But at the same time, she also began to meet and correspond with the scientists of her day. The eccentric Charles Babbage was building an “analytical engine” (a proto-computer), and Ada longed to join him. Though Babbage respected Ada’s abilities, even calling her the “Enchantress of Number [sic],” he didn’t always invite her to participate in his work. Year after year, she would ask to help, and he would turn her down. Still, their friendship continued even after Ada married. Her new husband was not particularly loving, but he was unusually supportive of her unconventional passions. In between all the duties of a countess, Ada could devote a few happy hours to mathematics.
I recently sipped tea with an old friend and compared the books we’d read in the last year. Katherine works with numbers and I work with words, but we share a love for books. My friend hadn’t read much nonfiction lately, but she had enjoyed a biography, Enchantress of Numbers.
“About Ada Lovelace?”
“Yes, that’s her!”
I smiled. Of course Katherine would love Ada’s story—she spends her days coding and programming, doing exactly the sort of work Ada would have adored.
Between 1842 and 1843, Ada finally found a massive project to occupy her busy mind. Ada translated and annotated an Italian paper about Babbage’s analytical machine. These notes—even longer than the original paper—contain Ada’s most famous idea: that a computer might be able to do more than just crunch numbers. The numbers could stand for anything. Math could be a means, not an end. With the right code, a computer might be able to perform all sorts of wonders.
Over a hundred years after her paper, Ada’s work has been lauded as a forerunner of modern computer science. In 2009, Suw Charman-Anderson created Ada Lovelace Day, setting aside the second Tuesday in October to celebrate women in STEM. For many, Ada’s story is an inspiration, a representation of the truth that a brilliant mind may be embodied in unexpected ways. Ada’s intellectual descendants are the primary stewards of her legacy; they understand her mind and her struggles in a way I cannot.
Modern experts disagree about whether Ada’s computer programs were, in fact, the “first” of their kind, but no one today would dare discount her mathematical talents. Sadly, however, Ada never found a steady place for her gifts in her lifetime. Sometimes Ada’s mathematical friends would ask for her help; sometimes they’d ignore her letters. When Ada offered to promote Charles Babbage’s work to the queen, he declined, though he desperately needed the support. Ada’s thirties were spent in increasing pain from uterine cancer, which she medicated (on doctor’s orders) with laudanum and alcohol. By age thirty-five, a pioneer of computer science was dead.
For the mathematically inclined, the importance of Ada’s story is obvious. But my fascination with her is far less personal. I find very little joy in formulas and sequences. In academic and artistic pursuits, I’m much more like Ada’s father (though I’d love to holler at him for a few hours). Math is a tool to me—necessary, not exciting. Still, I can’t stop reading books and listening to podcasts about Ada. When I hear her story, I mostly just want to be her friend.
When we discuss the importance of representation, we center the impact on those like the subject. Rightfully so. But we rarely mention why atypical-but-real stories matter to people unlike the subject: these figures repopulate everyone’s imagination. We re-envision what was and what might be.
I should acknowledge the breadth of history here: unlike Ada, so many women (like Henrietta Lacks or the Radium Girls) did not choose to participate in scientific history. Even fewer women had connections like Ada Lovelace. The long-dead Ada does not need to be the only woman we know in STEM, and she does not need to be the only life we discuss. Why would we rob ourselves of so many fascinating stories?
Still, Ada’s legacy reminds us to keep our eyes open. Today’s people are rarely anomalies: centuries before us, humans were pondering big ideas. Occasionally, historical records will let us spot someone who doesn’t fit our stereotypes, pursuing a passion despite the barriers of their century. When I remember people like Ada, I remember to watch for the unexpected and support it when it appears. While brilliance can appear in a lab coat, it can also appear in a floral gown and an absurd Victorian updo.
Courtney Zonnefeld graduated in 2018 with a degree in writing. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and saving up for more herb plants. You can usually find her wandering a farmer’s market, hunting for vintage books, or browsing the tea selection in coffee shops.