In 2013, Queen Elizabeth II granted a posthumous pardon to British computer pioneer, Alan Turing. This came almost six decades after he was (sadly) convicted of “gross indecency” for having an affair with another man. His conviction overshadowed his significant contributions to the field of theoretical computer science and even put an unfair, early end to his life.
Social prejudices may have scarred Turing’s clean image in the field of computer science. But that did not stop his being recognized widely as the “father” of computer science, primarily for his Turing machine, an abstract model of a general purpose computer. However, the unintended consequences of social exclusion and gender stereotypes may have been just the reasons for another computing genius to carry on her work unrestrained. This forms the crux of Imogen R. Coe and Alexander Ferworn’s article The Life and Contributions of Countess Ada Lovelace in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine (December 2016).
Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, popularly known as Ada Lovelace is often regarded as the world’s first computer programmer. Ada was born in England of 1815, to the poet Lord Byron and his wife Anna Isabella (known as Annabella). However, Ada was raised only by her mother since her parents separated only a month after her birth.
Coe and Ferworn highlight that the sole aim of education for aristocratic girls in then England was to make them “marriageable” by teaching them “feminine” subjects, such as music and languages. Interestingly though, Annabella was convinced that she had to rid her daughter of the “madness” of Lord Byron’s “depraved” literary skills. The only way to this, she felt, was to coach Ada in science and mathematics! Ada could not attend university due to the social constraints of those days; but she was tutored by some illustrious individuals, including Charles Babbage, the inventor of the world’s first theoretical computer.
The writers submit that it was an ironic coincidence of social prejudice and gender stereotypes coupled with privileged birth, that allowed Ada Lovelace to contribute significantly to computer science. Historians of science claim that Ada had effectively argued that Babbage’s Analytical Engine fulfilled the requirements of a computational device as theorized by Alan Turing, almost a century later. If this is true, then Ada Lovelace could well be called the “mother” of computer science.
The irony of course is that women’s contributions in the field of science and technology continue to be ignored, despite policies favouring the inclusion of women in those disciplines. But, in a paradoxical twist of social history, Ada pursued her interests because (?) of social exclusion and prejudice (!).
Academically though, Coe and Ferworn’s brief article proves that we have a lot to learn from the history of science if we have to take forward a new social contract for science.