The Ada Lovelace Hackathon

Image courtesy of Sydney Padua

Back in November, the folks at the Oxford Hackspace kindly hosted our hackathon to celebrate the life and works of Ada Lovelace. The hackathon was co-ordinated by Computer Science PhD student Beth McMillan, who wrote the following report.

Lovelace investigated and talked about many concepts that lend themselves to physical computing projects.

“It does not appear to me that cerebral matter need be more unmanageable to mathematicians than sideral & planetary matters & movements, if they would but inspect it from the right point of view.”

Lovelace’s idea for a so-called “calculus of the nervous system” has been realised in various ways by mathematical biologists, ever since Hodgkin and Huxley modelled a squid axon in 1952. An entertaining recent development was the creation of a robot that responded to stimuli based on the neuronal connections of a nematode worm. Some scientists from OpenWorm group were kind enough to come along to the hackathon to lead a project, and ended up working on a SPARKLY calculus of the nervous system.



“Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”

Lovelace predicted the advent of electronic music long before the birth of Delia Darbyshire. The possibilities for creating music machines and electronic compositions are practically infinite – one could use Markov chains to approximate a Bach chorale, play the ZX Spectrum like an instrument, or, as one group attempted, use a robot arm to play a glockenspiel.


Sadly, the weight of the mallet overcame the little robot arm. A few days later, however, the glorious hackspace nerds collaboratively built this, using an ardiuno and some motors:

As a young girl, Ada’s interest in “Flyology” lead her to investigate the best materials and designs for creating flying machines. Our Flyology department decided on a classic ornithopter design.

We’re lucky enough to be living at a time when 3D printing is cheap and readily available.

This meant we could, amongst other projects, replicate this part of the Analytical Engine’s adding mechanism:

We had around 45 participants, and there were around 10 experts from the hackspace volunteering as well. We had some Oxford students, some local folks, some teenagers, and a group of people all the way from Brunel!

The hackathon was run in an “unconference” manner: knowledgeable people shared their skills, and people formed their own groups to work on self-directed projects. Periodically we assembled for plenaries to talk about what we were making.

Three people also did short talks on their areas of expertise: the excellent Peter Lister introduced us to Arduino electronics, the brilliant Paul Murcutt explained neural networks, and the glorious Sydney Padua taught us about the Analytical Engine.

There was a Twitter feed running throughout the day, showing the internet what we were up to. All in all, it was an excellent day and I think everyone left having learned something. If Ada Lovelace were alive today, I think she would have been pretty excited.

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