It took computer historians until the late 1970s to acknowledge the Victorian-era mathematician Ada Lovelace – once best known as the daughter of the poet Lord Byron – as the world’s first female computer programmer.
Now Jessica Cook, a UCLA graduate student in English, brings a greater awareness of Lovelace to the present day.
Despite Lovelace’s technological achievements and family fame, much about her life and work remains unknown, said Cook, who is writing a dissertation on the literary history of computers in the 19th century. Only about 380 of Lovelace’s letters are published, while the writings of Lovelace’s male colleagues have been in the public domain for decades. And while more than 15,000 documents exist on Lovelace’s work, they can only be viewed in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.
Cook is transcribing this vast archive to make Lovelace’s legacy widely accessible.
“I hope that by releasing all this material we can finally see the depth and breadth of Lovelace’s genius,” Cook said. “The archive is a treasure trove of handwritten documents that alluringly suggest a much broader picture of Lovelace – not only as a computer pioneer but also as an aspiring poet, neuroscientist and Christian metaphysician of creativity and free will.”
The first algorithm
In recent years, Lovelace’s discoveries have become better known and she has been hailed as an inspiration, particularly to young women in STEM subjects. But many details of their work remained unknown.
Courtesy of Jessica Cook
“Although the Victorian scientific community had deep respect for Lovelace, many 20th-century scholars dismissed her as a naïve, starry young woman with no advanced mathematical knowledge or insight,” Cook said. “Scholars have worked hard over the past few decades to revise this one-sided view, but difficulty in accessing their writings remains a major obstacle.”
Lovelace began working with Charles Babbage in 1833, sometimes known as the “father of the computer”. In 1843, when she was 27, Lovelace published the first description of a computer algorithm, showing how Babbage’s proposed calculating machine could work beyond a single calculation to perform a programmable series of calculations. Lovelace was the first to write such a program and essentially invented the form of computer algorithm that is still used today.
Lovelace’s visionary theories addressed the potential of calculators not only for mathematics but also for creative work. Fittingly, Cook uses artificial intelligence to transcribe the archive.
“She’s not just a pioneer of the computer machinery,” said Cook, who spent more than two years deciphering Lovelace’s papers. “She’s the first person to theoretically understand that computers can be more than calculators. It was Lovelace who envisioned that calculating machines could weave numbers together like brocade and use symbolic logic to carry out creative tasks like composing music.”
A legacy closes
Cook attended Oxford on a scholarship from the UCLA Graduate Division. When she arrived, any plan to scan the letters had quickly evaporated.
“Nineteenth-century handwriting is very difficult to read,” she said. “It would have taken me years to get through this. So I really focused and photographed papers five to six hours a day for months.”
Their efforts yielded around 15,000 photographs. However, because modern handwriting transcription software doesn’t recognize the unfamiliar letters of Victorian cursive, Cook uses an AI program designed to legibly replicate historical documents from the 18th and 19th centuries. She had to “train” the AI to recognize Lovelace’s handwriting by running tests and correcting any mistakes the program made – effectively teaching the AI to refine itself.
“I can’t help but feel like Lovelace’s legacy has come full circle as I work on this,” Cook said. “The AI tools I use to decipher her writing are a fulfillment of the very skills that made Lovelace’s work possible.”
Courtesy British Museum
A letter from Lovelace to Charles Babbage in 1843 reveals a handwriting that is legible but difficult to scan.
The transcriptions reveal a woman with a tide of extreme creativity, deep philosophical insights and painful health struggles. Cook has already discovered errors and puzzling omissions in the few published letters from Lovelace. Although she is keeping her greatest revelations about these discoveries for publication, Cook said that some sentences erroneously omitted single words; in other places, key words that change the meaning of the letters were transcribed incorrectly.
In one letter, for example, Lovelace discusses the literary symbolism of a gift from her half-sister, linking them both to Lord Byron. The published letters identify the gift as a not particularly literary ‘pincushion’ rather than a ‘pen wiper’, an instrument used to remove excess ink from a pen. The literacy of this gift, Cook said, casts the entire passage in an entirely different light that has hitherto escaped literary scholars not working directly with the original letters.
Cook believes that the increased availability of archival material will show the world the breadth of Lovelace’s ideas, and in particular how advanced and groundbreaking her mathematical skills were.
“As someone who was about Lovelace’s age when she wrote this material, it was a blessing for me to see such an important computer pioneer finally receiving more of the recognition she deserves.”