Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage, and the Impact of Social Class
Christopher D. Green
Augusta Ada King, the Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852) is one of the most written-about women in the history of 19th-century science. In scholarly circles she is best-known for what Alan Turing dubbed the "Lovelace Objection" to Artificial Intelligence -- viz., that computers can never be "truly creative" because they only do what we program them to do. The remark was made in an 1843 footnote to an article about the "Analytical Engine," a kind of mechanical computer then being designed by her friend and mentor Charles Babbage (1791-1871). In broader society, however, she has become a kind of icon for the advancement of women in mathematics and computer science. She is the subject of numerous biographies, novels, and films, the U.S. Navy named a computer language after her in 1980, her image is featured in Microsoft's corporate watermark, and there is a major website named after her dedicated specifically to encouraging women to take up the study of computer science.
Much of the attention focused on Lovelace is the result of her having been a woman, making her way in the male-dominated world of 19th-century science. There is another dimension to her relationship with the English scientific world, and with Babbage in particular, that does not receive nearly as much attention as her gender, but that is equally enlightening and fascinating: her social class. Lovelace was a noble -- the only legitimate child of Lord Byron and the wife of the William King, Earl of Lovelace. Almost all of her scientific acquaintances, however, though often wealthy, were commoners -- "entrepreneur-scientists" as William J. Ashworth (1994) has called them. This "clash of classes" sometimes made for quite uncomfortable relationships, as I recount in this paper. My focus will be a series of rather nasty letters from Lovelace to Babbage, sent just before the publication of her Notes about the Analytical Engine, that nearly broke up their friendship. That Babbage chose to tolerate them and deftly finesse the situation is, I think, as much a testament to the degree of power her class gave her over others -- even those quite senior to her in age and achievement -- as is the fact that she felt entitled to send them in the first place.
Before discussing the letters, however, I will give a little background on Lovelace's education and her early relationship with Babbage. Lovelace was born in 1815 to the famous poet, George Gordon Lord Byron, and his wife Annabella Milbanke Lady Byron. Her parents separated when she was but a month old, and her father left the UK permanently within the year. Lady Byron, eager to suppress any "Byronic tendencies," as she called them, that might have been passed to her daughter, raised Ada under a strict educational regimen. One of the subjects she was taught from early childhood was arithmetic, not because she regarded it as being particularly important in its own right, but rather because she thought it to be good mental discipline; even a kind of "moral therapy" -- the mind focused on the eternal verities of numbers cannot be otherwise engaged in less edifying pursuits. This was a common attitude toward mathematics in Europe at the time (Richards, 1991). Lovelace's childhood arithmetic lessons do not seem to have gone much beyond the basics. Only in 1834, when she was 18 years old, was a professional tutor was engaged to teach her Euclidian geometry and basic algebra, and not until June of 1840, after she had married and borne three children, did she, at Babbage's recommendation, engage one of the finest young mathematicians in the UK, Augustus DeMorgan, to re-teach her algebra and begin basic calculus.
Coincident with Ada's study of calculus was a pronounced change in her attitude about herself. Whereas before she had been relatively modest about her abilities and deferential with her teachers, beginning in January 1841 she began to claim special, even occult, intellectual powers. Now many people feel that they have come to see the world in a powerful new way upon learning calculus -- but Ada described herself in ways so self-aggrandizing that they seem to border on the delusional. For instance, on 15 January 1841 she wrote to her friend Woronzow Greig that "Heaven has allotted me some intellectual-moral mission to perform." A few weeks later, on February 6 she wrote to her mother that she had extraordinary intellectual talents. First, owing to what she called "a peculiarity in [her] nervous system," she claimed to have:
perceptions of some things, which no one else has; or at least very few, if any…. an intuitive perception of hidden things;-- that is of things hidden from eyes, ears & the ordinary senses.
She also claimed "immense reasoning faculties" and what she called her:
concentrative faculty, by which I mean the power not only of throwing my whole energy & existence into whatever I choose, but also bringing to bear on any one subject or idea, a vast apparatus from all sorts of apparently irrelevant & extraneous sources. I can throw rays from every quarter of the universe into one vast focus.
One is rightly wary of diagnosing psychopathology from the distance of 150 years on the basis of a few letters, but it is at least clear that Ada’s opinions of her own intellectual powers and destiny were well out of proportion to her relatively elementary accomplishments.
Her mathematical studies were interrupted by pressing family matters between February and July of 1841, after which she took up the study of integral calculus. She seems to have stopped her mathematical studies again before the end of 1841, however, shifting her attention to music and theater. By April of 1842 she described these as her "real and natural genius." This plan of action was undertaken, however, over the objections of her mother and husband who, uncharacteristically for the time, encouraged her to continue her work on mathematics. A letter to DeMorgan in August of 1842, shows that she had by this time taken up mathematics once again. Thus, between June 1840 and February 1843, she reviewed algebra and studied calculus on and off for a total of about 21 months, mostly by correspondence.
In February of 1843, Charles Wheatstone -- the co-inventor of the telegraph -- suggested to Lovelace that she translate a French-language journal article written by one Luigi Frederico Menabrea based on a series of lectures Babbage had given on the Analytical Engine in Turin in 1840. Why Wheatstone wanted the article translated, and why he selected Lovelace to do it remains a minor mystery. It is no doubt relevant, however, that Babbage's relations with the Government were poor at this time (ever since he had spent some £17,000 of government grants on his earlier "Difference Engine" without ever completing a working machine), and he needed sponsorship again in order to build the Analytical Engine. Wheatsone, an ally of Babbage's schemes, seems to have believed it possible to place Lovelace in the position of scientific tutor (and lobbyist) to the young Prince Albert, who was apparently then looking to serve as patron to some grand scientific project. Wheatstone's plot ultimately came to nothing, but it neatly explains his interest in having Lovelace translate the article on Babbage's work: she would begin to establish scientific credentials, Babbage's project would receive some much-wanted English attention, and then Lovelace could be positioned to influence the Prince to support Babbage's new venture (thereby bypassing Parliament, and Babbage's chief political nemesis, Prime Minister Robert Peel).
Babbage would report in his autobiography, written some twenty years after the fact, that when Lovelace presented him with the completed translation, the preparation of which he had not been previously aware, he asked why she had not written an original article of her own. She is said to have replied that the idea had never occurred to her, and so he then suggested that she write some "notes" explicating parts that Menabrea had left vague or that had since been superseded by new developments. Lovelace and Babbage worked very closely on the Notes throughout the spring and summer of 1843. Dozens of letters and drafts flew back and forth between them, and personal meetings were frequent. The translation and Notes appeared in Richard Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs in September 1843, a journal that specialized in English translations and reports of Continental scientific activities.
The question of how much of their content is original to Lovelace and how much is really Babbage’s ideas communicated through her is a subject of continuing controversy. It seems that most of the key ideas, though not all, had appeared earlier in Babbage's own notes and letters. For instance, although Babbage reports that the decision to develop a "program" by which the Engine could calculate Bernoulli numbers -- the centerpiece of the Notes -- was Lovelace's, there are at least two earlier letters in which Babbage specifically mentioned using the Bernoulli numbers to test the machine's capabilities (see Collier 1990, p. 178). And, he admits in his autobiography to having personally calculated the Bernoulli numbers used, "to save Lady Lovelace the trouble," he said (1864/1994, p. 102). However, she had first learned about Bernoulli numbers only a few months before, in November of 1842, and she described them to him at the time as an "amazing quagmire and botheration."
In addition, the question of the relation of the machine's operations to those of the human mind appeared in a much earlier work of Babbage's (1989, vol. 3, p. 31). One other highlight of the Notes, however -- the suggestion that the machine might compose music if only musical composition could be rendered into algorithmic form -- seems to have been original to Lovelace.
As always, Lovelace was highly impressed with her own work, and was not shy about detailing its, and her own, virtues to Babbage: "I do not believe," she wrote, "that my father was (or ever could have been) such a Poet as I shall be an Analyst (& Metaphysician)…" And again, about the same time:
I cannot refrain from expressing my amazement at my own child [her Notes]. The pithy and vigorous nature of the style seem to me to be most striking; and there is at times a half-satirical & humorous dryness, which would I suspect make me a most formidable reviewer. I am quite thunder-stuck at the power of the writing.
And later in the same letter:
To say the truth, I am rather amazed at [the Notes]; & cannot help being struck quite malgré moi, with the really masterly nature of the style, & its Superiority to that of [Menabrea’s] Memoir itself.
As the time of publication neared Lovelace's attitude toward Babbage changed as well. She became testy, and even downright imperious. On July 19 she admonished Babbage for having made corrections to an out-of-date draft. On July 22 she wrote somewhat patronizingly (to a man nearly 25 years her senior):
I must now explain one or two things. I am much annoyed at your having altered my Note. You know I am always willing to make any required alterations myself, but that I cannot endure another person to meddle with my sentences.
On July 28, unable to find a portion of one Note, she wrote him accusingly,
I have always fancied you were a little harum-scarum & inaccurate now & then about the exact order & arrangement of sheets, pages, & paragraphs, &c…. I should be decidedly inclined to swear at you.
Then on July 30 she declared,
I do not think you possess half my forethought & power of foreseeing all possible contingencies…. How very careless of you to forget that Note, & how much waiting on & service you owe me, to compensate.
In early August, these little skirmishes with Babbage erupted into a full-blown dispute. Babbage wanted to attach an anonymous preface to the translation and Notes, explaining the history of his inability to obtain additional government funding for the Engine. William Francis, Richard Taylor’s assistant editor, said that such a piece would be unusual for the journal, and that he could not approve it in Taylor’s absence (who was out of the country at the time). If Babbage insisted on trying to add it, he was told, the journal could hold the translation and Notes until Taylor’s return, but that would mean delaying their publication. Babbage asked Ada to withdraw the translation and Notes. Ada refused, proclaiming that to do so would be "dishonorable & unjustifiable."
Now this might all be dismissed as understandable, but for what followed. On August 14 she wrote to him a long letter worthy of her always-litigious mother, Lady Byron, in which she went so far as to make the continuance of their collaboration contingent on three conditions. The astonishing haughtiness of the passage in question makes it well worth quoting in full:
Firstly: I want to know whether if I continue to work on & about your own great subject, you will undertake to abide wholly by the judgement of myself (or any person whom you may now please to name as referees whenever we may differ), on all practical matters relating to whatever can involve relations with any fellow-creature or fellow-creatures.
Secondly: can you undertake to give your mind wholly & undividedly, as a primary object that no engagement is to interfere with, to the consideration of all those matters in which I shall at times require your intellectual assistance & supervision; & can you promise not to slur & hurry things over; or to mislay, & allow confusion & mistakes to enter into documents, &c.?
Thirdly: If I am able to lay before you in the course of a year or two, explicit & honorable propositions for executing your engine, (such as are approved by persons whom you may now name to be referred to for their approbation), would there be any chance of you allowing myself & such parties to conduct the business for you; your own undivided energies being devoted to the execution of the work & all other matters being arranged for you on terms which your own friends should approve?
As if determined to add insult to injury, she went on to explain to him that,
My own uncompromising principle is to endeavour to love truth & God before fame and glory or even just appreciation….Yours is to love truth & God (yes, deeply & constantly); but to love fame, glory, honours yet more…. "Thro’ my present relations with man, I am doubtless to become fit for relations with another order hereafter; perhaps directly with the great Power Himself."
What Babbage’s exact reply was to this demand that he surrender control of his work, and indeed much of his life, to this self-proclaimed future interpreter of the Almighty, we do not know. That there should have been any continuation of their relationship is astounding enough. But Ada and Babbage met a day or two later. After the meeting Babbage wrote at the top of the letter containing her demands: "saw AAL this morning and refused all the conditions." The details of his refusal would be fascinating to know, however, for only a week later Lovelace wrote to her mother, "Babbage and I are I think more friends than ever." On September 9 Babbage wrote to her, calling her his "much admired Interpreter," and the "Enchantress of Numbers." On September 10 she wrote to back: "You are a brave man to give yourself wholly up to Fairy-Guidance!" She took to calling herself the "High-Priestess of Babbage’s Engine" (as a sort of stepping stone, she suggested, to becoming "High Priestess of God Almighty Himself"!).
What might account for her increasingly extravagant attitude? Some have suggested that she was simply mad, and to be sure, her behavior and beliefs were sometimes erratic. I find the hypothesis that she was simply "pulling rank" on Babbage far more compelling, however, especially given that she had learned "noble behavior" at the hem of her mother, Lady Byron, who was notorious for snubbing and bullying people -- sometimes people she had known for years -- if they dared not to conform her wishes. And in any case, the "insanity defense" wouldn't explain Babbage's handling of Ada in return. Babbage is well known for not having suffered fools gladly. Why didn't he simply break off the relationship? What was she to him?
Lovelace's connection to the levers of power, via her noble status, was something to be treated with great delicacy. Like Wheatstone, Babbage must have seen in her the possibility of bypassing the parliamentarians who now regarded him as something of a "crank" and appealing directly to the Royal family. The plan, if it ever indeed was a plan, never worked of course. First of all, it is not clear that the Lovelaces' connection to Victoria and Albert was ever so close that they could have wielded the degree of influence necessary. Ada's husband, just Lord King at the time of their marriage, had been raised to Earl of Lovelace by Victoria in the first year of her reign, but they were by no means part of the Queen's "inner circle." Wheatstone's plan to put Ada in the role Albert's tutor, had it come to fruition, might have changed the situation somewhat, but seems more than a little farfetched -- a woman with no formal training and with but one annotated translation of an article to her name about a project of dubious potential tutoring the Prince? Surely nearly every member of the Royal Society, many of whom were also nobles, would have been more likely candidates. If this were the plan, however, it would certainly call into question Babbage's claim that he knew nothing of the translation until it was finished. Are we to believe that Wheatstone attempted to make all these arrangements concerning his friend's most dear aspirations behind his back?
To conclude, I have suggested that Ada Lovelace's outburst near the time of the publication of her translation and Notes of Menabrea's article on the Analytical Engine was in part justified, at least in her own mind, by her superior social status to Babbage, despite her obviously being much junior to him in both age and scholarly accomplishment. In addition, I have argued that regardless of Lovelace's motives, Babbage's very measured reaction to her challenge is best explained in terms of the difference in their social classes, and the things he thought she might be able to gain for him in virtue of her social position. Much of this is necessarily speculative, but it is my hope that this attention to class issues has shed new light on the complicated relationship that held between these two fascinating people.
Ashworth, William J. (1994). The calculating eye: Baily, Herscel, Babbage and the business of astronomy. British Journal of the History of Science, 27, 409-441.
Babbage, Charles. (1989). On the mathematical powers of the calculating engine. In Martin Campbell-Kelly (Ed.), The works of Charles Babbage (vol. 3, pp. 15-61). New York: New York University Press.
Babbage, Charles. (1994). Passages from the life of a philosopher. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. (Original work published 1864)
Collier, Bruce. (1990). The little engines that could've: The calculating machines of Charles Babbage. New York: Garland.
Huskey Velma R. & Huskey, Harry D. 1980. Lady Lovelace and Charles Babbage. Annals of the History of Computing, 2, 299-329.
Richards, Joan. (1991). Rigour and clarity: Foundations of mathematics in France and England, 1800-1840. Science in Context, 4, 297-319.
Stein, Dorothy, (1985). Ada: A life and a legacy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Toole, Betty Alexandra. 1992. Ada, the enchantress of numbers: A selection from the letters of Lord Byron’s daughter and her description of the first computer. Mill Valley, CA: Strawberry Press.
1. Published in Toole (1992, 141).
2. Published in Toole (1992, 144).
3. Letter to Lord Lovelace, published in Toole (1992, 179).
4. Babbage ( 1994, 102)
5. British Library Add. MSS 37192, fol. 382. Cited in Stein (1985, 107).
6. British Library, Add. MSS 37192, fol. 407; 30 July, 1843. Published in both Stein (1985, 111) and Toole (1992, 215).
7. British Library Add. MSS 37192, fol 339; partially published in Toole (1992, 213) who says it is undated, and in Stein (1985, 110) who gives 27 July  as the date.
8. Publisehd in Toole (1992, 206-7). 19 July 1843.
9. Published in Toole (1992, 207-8). 22 July 1843.
10. Published in Toole (1992, 212). 28 July 1843.
11. Published in Toole (1992, 214-5). 30 July 1843.
12. Published in Toole (1992, 218). 6 August 1843.
13. Published in Toole (1992, 230). 14 August 1843.
14. Published in Toole (1992, 231). 14 August 1843.
15. Cited in Stein (1985, 120). The note is dated 15 August 1843, but because Ada made no mention of the meeting in a letter she wrote to her mother on the topic later in the day, Stien believes that the meeting may have taken place a day later.
16. Published in Toole (1992, 235). 22 August 1843.
17. Lovelace Papers, 168. Cited in Huskey & Huskey (1980, 325)
18. Published in Toole (1992, 264). 10 September 1843. Ada often called herself Babbage’s "fairy." The no-nonsense Babbage once objected, asking why their friendship should proceed on a "imaginary" basis. Ada replied by denying her "Fairyism" to be entirely imaginary, and continued to use the term. Babbage forbore.
19. Published in Toole (1992, 264). 15 September 15, 1843.
[Things to add to published version: Babbage was probably already known to the Royal family because of his involvement in the election in which John Herschel ran against the Prince (which one?) for the Presidency of the Royal Society in the early 1830s(?) (Check Somerville biography for details). Also, Albert turned out to be quite conservative about what the kinds of project he would be publicly associated with. Even the Great Exhibition of 1851 he was quite cautious about, fearing that he would be associated with a public failure. Babbage was a much greater risk than this, and given his earlier activity against a member of the Royal family, there was probably never a serious chance that Albert would sponsor the Analytical Engine. However, also remember that although Ada and William Lovelace were not in Victoria and Albert's inner circle, Victoria had raised him to Earl and given him a responsible Sherrif's(?) position very early in her reign, so she must have know something of him and had some confidence in him.]