Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Ada Lovelace and clock time

It is Ada Lovelace Day, a day to celebrate women in science and technology. The Guardian has a great piece by Rebekah Higgitt on 19th century astronomer Agnes Mary Clerke (1842-1907). The idea it not just to focus on Ada Lovelace...


I've been reading up on 19th century science for my forthcoming book on The Evil of the Daleks, and also digging into the life of Ada Lovelace anyway.

Sydney Padua's The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage with Interesting Anecdotes of Celebrated and Distinguished Characters Fully Illustrating a Variety of Instructive and Amusing Scenes; as Performed within and without the remarkable Difference Engine is a gleefully silly and clever book, and the footnotes have endnotes with footnotes. Just look at how lovely it is:

The first page of
The Thrilling Adventures of
Lovelace and Babbage

by Sydney Padua
Benjamin Woolley's Ada Lovelace - Bride of Science: Romance, Reason and Byron's Daughter (1999) is a lucid biography full of fascinating detail. Particularly brilliant is his explanation on pp. 148-155 of the invention of the metre in revolutionary France, the need to generate logarithmic tables for this new metric system, and Gaspard Riche de Prony's spark of genius, breaking the job down into simple units that could be handled by a production line carried out by three tiers of people: a small number of professional mathematicans, a larger section of "calculators", and some 60 to 80 non-mathematicians,
"the outcasts of the post-Revolutionary era with minimal artithmetical skills and economic power: hairdressers."
Benjamin Woolley, Ada Lovelace - Bride of Science, p. 151.
Woolley then goes on to explain, so simply even I could understand it, how Charles Babbage was inspired by this idea to create his difference engine - effectively, automating the hairdresser part of the process.

It was this difference engine that caught the imagination of Ada Lovelace, who collaborated with Babbage on his efforts to building a more complicated machine - a project that Babbage never realised, as both Woolley and Padua explain. But Lovelace, thinking it all through in a footnote about something else, wrote what many regard as the first computer programme, 100 years before the invention of the computer.

Also of great fascination in Woolley's book is Lovelace's relationship with her mentor, Mary Somerville - of whom the word "scientist" was first used. And I also loved this description of the difference between the clocks in churchs - measuring local time - and the new railways clocks based on standardised, Greenwich timekeeping:
"The station clock also came to serve a symbolic purpose. Where the church clock oversaw communal events, a gathering of people who lived with each other and knew each other's affairs, the station clock was the meeting point for strangers, for people trying to escape their localities - for breif encounters of a sort Ada herself would soon experience."
Ibid., p. 275.
Incidentally, I wrote a short story about Ada Lovelace and dinosaurs, "An Experiment in the Formulae of Thought", included in Irregularity (Jurassic London: 2014).

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