Ada Lovelace: engines, poetry, and the power of imagination

Celebrating the woman who wrote the first computer algorithm and believed in the artistic vein within science


Ada was barely a month old when her mother fled from her marriage from Lord Byron (yes, that Byron) planning to take the baby into a life devoid of the father’s mad poetry and filled with discipline. It almost sounds like a fairy tale, but it is, to our knowledge, the picturesque background of the one who would become the first person to create an ancestor of the computer program: Augusta Ada Byron, later Countess of Lovelace, known today as Ada Lovelace. Born during the brief marriage between Anne Isabella Milbanke, a solidly educated Baroness, and Lord Byron, poet and ‘19th century bad boy’, Ada was ultimately brought up by Lady Byron as a single mother and nourished with the knowledge instilled in her by her many tutors, with a focus on mathematics and science. She loved machines, designed a flying one (that was going to be made of paper and silk) as a preteen, and seemed, in the eyes of her mother, to stay away from the father’s possible legacy of wildness through the discipline of her studies (as told by Charman-Anderson). However, Ada’s mind was not made for scientific thought only. In various accounts, there seems to have been a certain vibrancy in the young girl’s predisposition which some say scared Lady Byron, fearful the shadow of her late husband might follow. A repressed fantastic energy, a mind with a tendency to run wild, to seek acts of rebellion. And, when it came in contact with a device the likes of the Analytical Engine, it cracked wide open.

Machinations, or of Poetical Science

Babbage’s notes on the Difference Engine, predecessor of the Analytical Engine. Via the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.

Successor of the Difference Engine of the same inventor, the Analytical Engine was incomplete creation of polymath (coined by Whalen) Charles Babbage. The Analytical Engine was a general-purpose computing machine, a mechanical precursor to the modern computer, by which the Countess was enraptured. Lovelace and Babbage’s friendship spanned years, and through their friendship they dwelled into the deliciously abstract directions the Engine could go. When Babbage machine’s paper was redacted by Luigi Menabrea, it was Ada Lovelace, with her deep knowledge of the project per se, to correct it and to add several ideas to the document. Among these ideas, one that proposed a set of punch cards, a set of instructions to be fed to the Engine in order to allow it to perform several, diverse computations (more on the details here, and on the deriving book). It was, if we will, the very first computer program.

While more people should be in the know concerning what makes Lovelace an important historical figure because of her contribution to science, there is more passion that meets the eye when learning about the Countess of Lovelace. What made her a visionary was not only her mathematical and analytical talent, but also the way this talent manifested itself. To be paramount for the achievement of her visions was imagination. She wrote of the Analytical Engine: “We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves” (via Kafai), creating decorative patterns in her mind out of mathematical abstractions, and vice versa. “Her understanding of mathematics was laced with imagination, and described in metaphors” writes Dr. Toole, her biographer. Furthermore, Ada Lovelace was a believer in the connubium of the two parts of her genealogical tree; in a letter to her mother, continues Toole, she wrote:

If you can’t give me poetry, can’t you give me “poetical science”?

Lovelace seems to have found few things more interesting than the union between the cosmos of emotions and that of science. Often, she hoped to find common ground where the child of both, like herself was, could flourish. She dabbled with curiosity in emerging “sciences” such as phrenology and mesmerism, says Woolley. Most importantly, Ada Lovelace promoted, willingly or not, the bridging of the gap between the canonically subjective and the canonically objective: arts and sciences. It is a phenomenon just recently studied the one that sees protagonist the Edge Effect (here is a great podcast about it), the idea that the fusion between two people, groups, things that have little to do with each other — when it comes to ideas, disciplines, cultural backgrounds, and much more — can spark an unprecedented creativity on both sides. In other words, the best, most interesting things can be born from the encounter between dissimilar strangers.

Ada Lovelace aka Augusta Ada Byron-1843 or 1850 a rare daguerreotype by Antoine Claudet. Picture taken in his studio probably near Regents Park in London. Via WIkimedia Commons

Says Lovelace herself:

Those who view mathematical science, not merely as a vast body of abstract and immutable truths, whose intrinsic beauty, symmetry and logical completeness, when regarded in their connexion together as a whole, entitle them to a prominent place in the interest of all profound and logical minds, but as possessing a yet deeper interest for the human race, when it is remembered that this science constitutes the language through which alone we can adequately express the great facts of the natural world, and those unceasing changes of mutual relationship which, visibly or invisibly, consciously or unconsciously to our immediate physical perceptions, are interminably going on in the agencies of the creation we live amidst: those who thus think on mathematical truth as the instrument through which the weak mind of man can most effectually read his Creator’s works, will regard with especial interest all that can tend to facilitate the translation of its principles into explicit practical forms.

This quote describes the mathematician’s fascination with the world and the way it can be described by science. She looked for the “connexion”, the link between two worlds seemingly so distant. She looked for what everyone, sooner or later, is looking for: “intrinsic beauty”.

Looking for beauty

“Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, / Empty the haunted air and gnomed mine — / Unweave a rainbow …” said Edgar Allan Poe concerning the power of science of dissecting all things of the world until the dissolution of their mystery — and consequently, their beauty (as quoted by Ruth Padel). It seems sometimes and in some places that the marriage of science and poetry should not take place, and yet it does, willingly or not.

Ada Lovelace’s search for beauty in the rational and the logical is an approach from which we have a lot to learn. The fusion between two areas previously thought opposite such as the technical sciences and the humanities is what creates the most charming things — but I have already discussed this. Most of all, the search for poetry within the sciences is not a weird and unexpected fusion experiment as much as an exploration of the most human of traits: curiosity, desire for exploration, awe in front of “the great facts of the natural world”.

If science is inspired by nature and all things that surround us and strives for their understanding, the emotional world can be merged into the sciences and make it sing. Imagination alone goes a long way within problem solving. As read on the Huffington Post, Lovelace’s poetical-scientific approach can be compared to the mental processes of abstraction, pattern-seeking, algorithm-making that are typical of computational thinking and that incorporate imagination into a more technical approach.

Scientific progress on a grand scale is always driven by imagination, because without it we cannot speculate what is next. Yet more interestingly, still Ruth Padel comments on how science and poetry converge on several points, like the power of metaphor, and the ability of “get at a universal insight or law through the particular”. Which means, really, using the detail, the crumb, the symbolic grain of sand to open our eyes on greater truths. Or, if we want to be romantic, they both redirect us towards one truth: the one of the mysteries that surround us and live within us.

How do we become, then, poetical scientists? The art does not seem to lie in the technique as much as in the approach. Like Lovelace, as poets, we can let go of the idea of the “horrible voice of science”, as defined by Vachel Lindsay, and as men and women of science and technology we can remember where the drive to these disciplines comes from: the curiosity that thrives inside us all. With a bit of effort we can see the space in-between arts and sciences not as no-man’s land in a wordless war, but as garden where to pick the rarest flowers.

Charles Darwin says in The Origin of Species:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

And wrote Walt Whitman in his poem Kosmos:


Who believes not only in our globe with its sun and moon, but in other globes with their suns and moons,

Who, constructing the house of himself or herself, not for a day but for all time, sees races, eras, dates, generations,

The past, the future, dwelling there, like space, inseparable together.

A scientist and a poet, Darwin and Whitman do here justice to the poetry of science and the science of poems by looking in awe at what surrounds us, with very similar eyes. In perfect poetical science, they embrace the land in the middle: the one of creativity and of flights of fancy, that define the why we do what we do. It is the draw of the world in front of us, and Ada Lovelace knew that there is no one right lens to look at it through.

(cover image: Diagram of an algorithm for the Analytical Engine for the computation of Bernoulli numbers, from Sketch of The Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage by Luigi Menabrea with notes by Ada Lovelace. Via Wikimedia Commons)

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