Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Lovelace myth

We are currently seeing an effort to secure for gifted women proper credit for their achievements. As a rule this effort is commendable. But sometimes it exaggerates, as seen in the crediting of Ada Lovelace (a daughter of Lord Byron, 1815-1852) as the first computer programmer, or even the inventor of the computer tout court. 
Cf. Allan G. Bromley, in the 1990 article "Difference and Analytical Engines":
"All but one of the programs cited in her notes had been prepared by Babbage from three to seven years earlier. The exception was prepared by Babbage for her, although she did detect a 'bug' in it. Not only is there no evidence that Ada ever prepared a program for the Analytical Engine, but her correspondence with Babbage shows that she did not have the knowledge to do so."
Bruce Collier, who later published a biography of Charles Babbage, wrote in his 1970 Harvard University PhD thesis that Lovelace "made a considerable contribution to publicizing the Analytical Engine, but there is no evidence that she advanced the design or theory of it in any way".
Eugene Eric Kim and Betty Alexandra Toole consider it incorrect to regard Lovelace as the first computer programmer, as Babbage wrote the initial programs for his Analytical Engine, although the majority were never published. Bromley notes several dozen sample programs prepared by Babbage between 1837 and 1840, all substantially predating Lovelace's notes. 
Dorothy K. Stein regards Lovelace's notes as "more a reflection of the mathematical uncertainty of the author, the political purposes of the inventor, and, above all, of the social and cultural context in which it was written, than a blueprint for a scientific development".
Doron Swade, a specialist on the history of computing known for his work on Babbage, analyzed four claims about Lovelace during a lecture on Babbage's analytical engine:
She was a mathematical genius
She made an influential contribution to the analytical engine
She was the first computer programmer
She was a prophet of the computer age
In Swade's view, only the fourth claim has "any substance at all". He holds that Ada was only a "promising beginner" instead of genius in mathematics, that she began studying basic concepts of mathematics five years after Babbage conceived the analytical engine so that she couldn't have made pioneering contributions to it, and that she only published the first computer program instead of actually writing it.


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