Monday, January 29, 2018

Ada Lovelace, a cameo in “Victoria”

Happy Belated Birthday, Dear Wolfgang!
261 years young & still delighting audiences...


Ada’s cameo in “Victoria”

Like other history fans, I’ve been watching Masterpiece Theater’s latest offering, Victoria, wand marveling over the sets, costumes, as well as admiring the work of the actors. Here, in the title role, Jenna Coleman, (who I was not a great fan of during her Dr. Who days,) shows what she can do—and, let’s face it, anyone with a neck like she has deserves all the starring roles she acquire!

Much of “Victoria” is concerned with the royal family's sturm und drang. At simplest, the series is a high-minded and elegantly dressed soap opera, but it's also a wonderful entertainment for history junkies like myself. Beyond the scope of this television series, the Queen’s lengthy reign--only recently surpassed by that of her descendant, Elizabeth II—ranged from the birth of railways and wide scale industrial development, through the time of Industrial Robber Barons,  and all the way to 1901.

“Victoria” has been giving me fascinating glimpses of politicians whose doings I studied for “O” and “A” levels, figures like Victoria’s first Prime Ministers, the aristocratic, old-school Lord Melbourne, and his opposite, Sir Robert Peel, son of a wealthy industrialist. Peel, a Liberal in Tory clothing, championed modern criminal laws and policing, and even managed to pass a “radical” 3% income tax upon the rich. Although he did not do so quickly enough to have much impact on the horror of the Irish famine, he eventually repealed the protectionist, onerous-to-the-poor Corn Laws.

I was beyond delighted the other night , however, when Charles Babbage and his friend, Countess Ada Lovelace, and appeared on the scene. In “Victoria,” Lady Lovelace and Charles Babbage speak with the Queen while Babbage's complex and never completed “Difference Machine” (a forerunner of the calculator) is on display.

Ada was a rare bird in her time, an aristocratic woman who joyfully engaged with mathematics and logic. She has been credited, along with her mentor and friend, the inventor Charles Babbage, with having laid the groundwork for modern computing.  (Babbage’s scientific fame initially came from his work creating a book of Logarithm tables, a handy resource that until recently, every engineer kept close at hand.)
The Difference Machine, a calculator, hand cranked and hand-made, 
2,000 brass parts now resides in Science Museum of London. 
This too makes a brief, cameo appearance in "Victoria."

Babbage was working on an “Analytical Engine,” a machine which could do long computations mechanically, thereby removing the risk of human error. After he’d spoken before an Italian Scientific Society about his plan, one of the attendees, Luigi Menabrea, wrote a long in-depth article describing it from copious notes he’d taken. Ada enters the story when she offered to translate the article from Italian for Babbage.

Charles Babbage by Samuel Laurence (Wikipedia)

I’ll now quote Stephan Wolfram, mathematician and famed creator of Mathematica
“As something of a favor to Babbage, she (Ada) wrote an exposition of the Analytical Engine, and in doing so she developed a more abstract understanding of it than Babbage had — and got a glimpse of the incredibly powerful idea of universal computation.”*

“Ada Lovelace was the first person ever to glimpse with any clarity what has become a defining phenomenon of our technology and even our civilization: the notion of universal computation.”

As pleasurable to me as was the scene of the meeting between Ada and the Queen--as well as introducing Prince Albert into the equation (he was a patron of the sciences and all the new technologies)--well--my inner researcher/a.k.a. KILLJOY simply had to discover whether this had actually happened. That led me to Professor Wolfram’s comprehensive Wired article. Sadly, like many tantalizing scenes from historical movies, it transpired that neither Ada nor Babbage ever met Victoria or her forward-thinking husband in any sort of semi-informal, discursive social situation. 

Still, I'm grateful to the creators of "Victoria" that they gave us a warm, sympathetic glimpse of Ada, Countess of Lovelace, who has been justly elevated to be one of the 19th Century heroines of science. She's a fascinating human interest story for any little girls who are about to begin tackling math and science in elementary school.  

Who knows what Ada and Charles might have devised together had she lived-- and had been able to keep the roving interest of her polymath mentor focused on the Analytical Engine? But instead, tragically, and at what loss to science we shall never know, Ada died at 36 of ovarian cancer. Stephen Wolfram, in the article linked below, was sufficiently intrigued to speculate about what might have happened if she's survived as far into the century as her mentor Babbage. What a subject for any writer of alternate history!

Florence Nightingle, nursing pioneer and another of Ada's famous friends, wrote: “They said she could not possibly have lived so long, were it not for the tremendous vitality of the brain, that would not die.”

Ada, The "first software programmer," from iQ UK

If you are interested in learning more about Ada, check out these articles:


Wired(c), Untangling the Tale of Ada Lovelace by Stephen Wolfram, 12.22.15

The Mathematica site, for Wolfram's revolutionary mathematical "assistant":

~~Juliet Waldron
See all my historical novels @

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