Ada Lovelace


There’s going to be a lot of stuff about Ada in the run up to both Ada Lovelace Day and her bicentenary on 10 December, so this thread is for sharing it all!!

First up, Nature:

Richard Holmes re-examines the legacy of Ada Lovelace, mathematician and computer pioneer.

BBC Radio: The letters of Ada Lovelace. Two episodes in which Georgina Ferry presents the dramatised letters of Ada Lovelace, begins Monday 14 Sept at 11am. Two clips available.

And this clip opens with us!!

BBC TV: Calculating Ada: The Countess of Computing. Dr Hannah Fry takes a look at Ada’s life.

Interesting trivia note: Both Georgina and Hannah are ALD alumnae, Georgina from the first book and Hannah from ALD Live 2014!

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Another piece on Ada:



I’ve finally watched Calculating Ada and was left a little disappointed. On the most basic level, unless I just missed it, they never actually said when Ada was born. There was a lot of stuff about 1843 when her book was published but not when she was born, which was a bit of an oversight for a biographical programme. The lack of explanation, however basic, of how the difference engine actually worked also frustrated me. I ended up googling it and am still not entirely clear, but the presenter asked ‘how does it work’ and we weren’t given an answer which I found really annoying. Most of all, though, there just seemed to be a lot of wasted time. All that stuff at the races where they bet £5 and won £3.64 (yes, I remember, because it was repeated so many times) was time that could have been better spent actually telling us more about Ada.

While I didn’t want it to be a bio that focused on her as a ‘wife and mother’, some expression of her as a person would be nice. It was mentioned that she was married and had 3 kids but that was it. Oh, and that a member of her betting syndicate might have been her lover but nothing more was mentioned. Two sentences. That seemed to be sum of her as a person outside her passion for maths. I didn’t get any sense of her as a rounded person. Yes, I want to know about her work, but it seemed they were so frightened of falling into the ‘wife and mother’ tropes that they went the other way and pretended that she wasn’t either.

There seemed to be so much that got left on the cutting room floor - the stuff about her lover was raised and then never mentioned again, as was the fact that she told her mother about her gambling debts on her death bed. I would love to have known what happened - but it was left at ‘she told her mother’. Instead we got shots of the presenter walking through a field of yellow flowers for some reason. It was all a bit weird.



I watched part of it with my Dad, but he’s a big ol’ softy and didn’t want to see the end because he knew it would cover her death, so I’ve not yet seen all of it. I’ll have to watch it again properly, but my impression was that it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but it wasn’t all that good either.

It’s also a bit of a shame that they focused on her gambling - it seems to me that she was firstly easily lead, and secondly there’s a theory that she was desperately trying to regain part of the family fortune frittered away in building projects by her husband. Which never usually gets mentioned (and it’s not clear how much money he spent, though it was certainly a lot).

Betty Toole maintains that Ada wasn’t going to the races, that she was too ill at that point in her life, and that there’s no sign of the losses in the household accounts. The first point might be true, but the second point, well, would you be marking your gambling losses in the household accounts?

Betty also maintains that the affair she was supposed to have had with John Cross would have been impossible for her, again, given how ill she was at the time she was supposed to have had it. My feeling is that she was engaged in an emotional relationship rather than a physical one, by someone who was very charming and who took advantage of her.

If you read Lady Byron and her Daughters by Julia Markus, who goes back to primary sources including Ada’s and Annabella’s letters, then you find out that Ada twice gave the family jewels to Cross, (gambling partner as well), and her mother had to buy them back at a cost of, iirc, £900, which was a shitload of cash in those day. The second time is the deathbed confession - Lovelace told her mother that she’s given away the jewels for a second time, and Lady Byron retrieved them, without telling Lord Lovelace.

(Lovelace also confessed something to Lord Lovelace on her deathbed, something so awful that he never saw or spoke to her again. The assumption is that she told him about Cross.)

Cross was a total asshole, from what I can tell, who was focused on charming as much cash out of Lovelace as he possibly could. One reason I think this is that we know Lovelace was prone to crushes and impetuosity. She fell ‘in love’ with her tutor when she was a teen, and the two ran away with the intention of eloping, but she was recognised and returned to her family. Throughout her adult life, she was never short of attention, and was not averse to being a bit flirty, even with Faraday who was a strict Sandemanian and the least likely man to flirt with. But I suspect she was also insecure and easily charmed, and Cross had no scruples in terms of extracting money from her.

So I see the story as one less of a capricious, fantasist prone to betting on the horses, but a woman who had multiple pressures on her to try and make money quickly, who had a bit too much faith in her own skills, and who trusted the wrong people. Which is, frankly, a much more realistic summary of modern gamblers.

I also see a patriarchal narrative structure in which the woman is feckless and unreliable and takes the brunt of the blame for the gambling, where as the syndicate – which was all men – gets off scott free, entirely uncriticised. Cross’s character is never examined, his ability to extract money out of Lovelace is never seen as wicked, it’s just Lovelace that gets the criticism. This is not to say Lovelace had no agency, she did not have to give Cross that money as far as we know, but she is also not the only party at fault here.

(And we’re talking about a time when it wasn’t quite so clear that maths can’t win at the races, so it’s not entirely clear that her logic was quite as flawed as we assume it to be. What if she’d, through luck, won big before she died? How would the narrative be formed then?)

Ooh, I could go on all day…



What you have written contains far more information about Ada than the entire 60 minute programme contained and has made me far more interested in learning more about her. I’ve added the book to my ever expanding reading list (does anyone have a reading list/book pile that gets smaller over time?)



I’m afraid that would contract the Second Law of Thermodynamics.