Category Archives: News

Ada Lovelace: the Making of a Computer Scientist

Post by Ursula Martin

The remarkable story of Ada Lovelace, often considered the world’s first computer programmer, is told in a new book, ‘Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist’,  co-written by Oxford Mathematicians Christopher Hollings and Ursula Martin together with colleague Adrian Rice from Randolph-Macon College.

The book is  a companion to the Computer History Museum’s current exhibition  Thinking Big: Ada, Countess of Lovelace, and both  draw  on the Lovelace papers held at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, featuring  reproductions from this  exceptional collection that highlight Lovelace’s mathematical prowess as well as her creativity and imagination. They include  rare historical documents from Lovelace’s childhood, and later correspondence with  her distinguished tutors, including Augustus De Morgan, Charles Babbage, and other well-known Victorian thinkers.

Detail, Lovelace’s mathematical papers, Bodleian Library

One treasure in this lavishly illustrated book is a sheet of apparent doodles of dots and lines, which  lay unrecognised in the Bodleian Library until Ursula Martin spotted what it was – a conversation between Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage about finding patterns in networks. Their network is a pattern of islands and bridges, and the puzzle is to find a route that crosses each bridge exactly once and returns to the starting point. Remarkably, they figure out the conditions for such a route to exist, for any possible network. So the document is a  very early forerunner of the sophisticated algorithmics used today in every kind of network routing or analysis problem, from friendship networks to airline schedules.

Ada, Countess of Lovelace (1815–1852) was the daughter of poet Lord Byron and his highly educated wife, Anne Isabella. Active in Victorian London’s social and scientific elite alongside Mary Somerville, Michael Faraday and Charles Dickens, Ada Lovelace became fascinated by the computing machines devised by Charles Babbage.  The table of mathematical formulae sometimes called the ‘first programme’ occurs in her 1843 paper about his most ambitious invention, his unbuilt ‘Analytical Engine.’

Ada Lovelace had no access to formal school or university education, but studied science and mathematics from a young age. This book uses previously unpublished archival material to explore her precocious childhood: her ideas for a steam-powered flying horse, pages from her mathematical notebooks, and penetrating questions about the science of rainbows. A remarkable correspondence course with the eminent mathematician Augustus De Morgan shows her developing into a gifted, perceptive and knowledgeable mathematician, not afraid to challenge her teacher over controversial ideas.

Calculation of Bernoulli numbers, Ada Lovelace, 1843

Her 1843 paper, a translation from the French of Menabrea with lengthy appendices by Lovelace,  discusses the Analytical Engine in abstract mathematical terms, still of relevance today,  which contrast with the engineering details of Babbage’s own copious notes. She also reflected on broader questions such as whether the machine might think, or compose music. The paper remains the most complete high-level explanation we have of the unbuilt the  Analytical Engine.

“Lovelace’s far sighted remarks about whether the machine might think, or compose music, still resonate today,” said Professor Martin. “This book shows how Ada Lovelace, with astonishing prescience, learned the maths she needed to understand the principles behind modern computing.”  The book has met with acclaim, with presentations on the BBC, events at major literary festivals, and reviewers admiring its lucid presentation and elegant reproduction of key documents. On 25  July 2018 the life and legacy of Ada Lovelace was honoured in a resolution of the US Senate .

Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist by Christopher Hollings, Ursula Martin and Adrian Rice is distributed in the USA by University of Chicago Press ; published by Bodleian Library Publishing , in partnership with the Clay Mathematics Institute .

Ada Lovelace and the Analytical Engine

post by Christopher Hollings, Ursula Martin and Adrian Rice

Analytical Engine, trial model, Science Museum Group

Ada Lovelace is famous for her account of  the   ‘Analytical Engine’, which we now recognise as a steam-powered programmable computer, designed by nineteenth-century polymath Charles Babbage, but never built. In our recent book, Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist, we show, based upon manuscripts held by the Bodleian Library in Oxford, how she developed the mathematical skills and knowledge she needed to write the paper.

Charles Babbage started work on his Analytical Engine in the mid-1830s, with the idea of creating a new calculating machine that could “eat its own tail”, by which he meant that it could modify its calculation while it was running. It would do this by pausing during a calculation, and using the values it had already determined to choose between two possible next steps. Babbage listed the basic operations that such a machine, with a large enough memory, would need if it were to execute “the whole of the developments and operations of analysis”, in other words any calculation that could be conceived of at the time. We now know that the basic operations that he described are what are needed to compute anything that can be calculated by any modern computer. This means that the Analytical Engine would have been, in modern terms, a general-purpose computer, a concept first identified by Alan Turing in the 1930s.

The Analytical Engine was never built, but many aspects of its design were recorded in immaculate detail in Babbage’s drawings and mechanical notation. It was to be programmed by means of punched cards, similar to those used in the weaving looms designed by Joseph Marie Jacquard. Separate decks of cards made up what we would now call the program, and gave the starting values for the computations. A complex mechanism allowed the machine to repeat a deck of cards, so as to execute a loop. The hardware involved many new and intricate mechanisms and was conceived on a massive scale. The central processing unit, which Babbage called the Mill, would be fifteen feet (4.5m) tall; the memory, or Store, holding a hundred 50-digit numbers would be twenty feet (6m) long (Babbage even considered machines with ten times that capacity); and other components included a printer, card punch, and graph plotter. Babbage estimated it would take three minutes to multiply two 20-digit numbers. A machine of that size would indeed have required steam power.

Disillusioned with what he saw as a lack of support from the British scientific establishment, Babbage looked for funding abroad. In 1840, Italian scientists invited him to Turin, where he lectured on the principles of the Engine. In the audience was Luigi Menabrea, who in October 1842 published the first account of the Engine, in French, based on Babbage’s lectures. Ada Lovelace had been thinking for some time about how she might contribute to Babbage’s projects. Another scientific friend, Charles Wheatstone, asked if she would translate Menabrea’s article, and Babbage suggested she expand it with a number of appendices.  After several months of furious effort by them both, the resulting paper was published in Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs in August 1843. It was signed only with her initials, A.A.L., and of its sixty-six pages, forty-one make up her appendices.

Note G © Magdalen College Libraries and Archives, Daubeny 90.A.11

The paper is most famous for the final appendix, Note G. This demonstrates the operation of the machine by giving the example of the calculation of the so-called ‘Bernoulli numbers’, which crop up in many places in modern mathematics. The Bernoulli numbers are particularly amenable to machine calculation because they are defined recursively: we may use the first to determine the second, the second for the third, and so on. There are several different ways of calculating these numbers, and Lovelace did not choose the simplest: she noted instead that the “object is not simplicity or facility of computation, but the illustration of the powers of the engine”.

The paper contained a detailed explanation of how the various quantities involved in the computation of the Bernoulli numbers are fetched from the Store, used in calculation in the Mill, and moved back again, according to the instructions on the cards. The process is illustrated using a large table, whose columns represent the values of the data, the variables, and the intermediate results, as the engine carried out each stage of the calculation.

This table is often described as “the first computer program”, though Lovelace wrote, more accurately, that it “presents a complete simultaneous view of all the successive changes” in the components of the machine, as the calculation progresses. In other words, the table is what computer scientists would now call an “execution trace”. The “program”, had the idea existed at the time, would have been the deck of punched cards that caused the machine to make those successive changes. Babbage’s designs were rather unclear about aspects of how the cards would be manipulated, so it is hard to reconstruct the exact program. Such tables were still used as a method for explaining computation 100 years later, when Geoff Toothill drew a similar diagram to illustrate the working of the first stored program computer, the “Manchester Baby”.

‘Note G’ is the culmination of Lovelace’s paper, following many pages of detailed explanation of the operation of the Engine and the cards, and the notation of the tables. The paper shows Lovelace’s obsessive attention to mathematical detail – it also shows her imagination in thinking about the bigger picture. She  observed a fundamental principle of the machine, that the operations, defined by the cards, are separate from the data and the results.

Famously, she observed that the machine might act upon things other than number, if those things satisfied mathematical rules. “Supposing”, she wrote “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.”

She thought about how the engine might do algebra, how it “weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves” and how it might make new discoveries: “We might even invent laws for series or formulæ in an arbitrary manner, and set the engine to work upon them, and thus deduce numerical results which we might not otherwise have thought of obtaining.”

These led her to think about what we now call artificial intelligence, though she argued that the engine was not capable of original ideas: “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform.”  Alan Turing disagreed. He wrote a famous paper on ‘Computing machinery and intelligence’, where he challenged what he called “Lady Lovelace’s objection” by suggesting that we can “order” the machine to be original, by programming it to produce answers that we cannot predict.

Lovelace’s thoughts about using the machine are very familiar to present-day programmers. She understood how complicated programming is, and how difficult it can be to get things right, as “[t]here are frequently several distinct sets of effects going on simultaneously; all in a manner independent of each other, and yet to a greater or less degree exercising a mutual influence.” And, echoing a concern of every programmer ever, she also appreciated the need to “reduce to a minimum the time necessary for completing the calculation”.

Lovelace’s paper is an extraordinary accomplishment, probably understood and recognised by very few in its time, yet still perfectly understandable nearly two centuries later. It covers algebra, mathematics, logic, and even philosophy; a presentation of the unchanging principles of the general-purpose computer; a comprehensive and detailed account of the so-called “first computer program”; and an overview of the practical engineering of data, cards, memory, and programming.

Charles Baggage’s letter to Ada Lovelace © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Lovelace and Babbage’s collaboration by letter, as they exchanged versions of the table for the Bernoulli numbers, echoes the frustrations of all collaborators — “Where is it gone?” wrote Babbage, as they lost track of Note G. Towards the end of the work tempers became frayed. Lovelace refused to let Babbage add to the paper a strong criticism of the British government; and Babbage turned down her offer to become further involved in organising the building of the engine.  However Babbage continued to speak admiringly of Lovelace, writing to Michael Faraday of “that Enchantress who has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects (in our own country at least) could have exerted over it.”

They did not collaborate again, but remained friends: Lovelace’s letters to Babbage are full of details of the mathematics books she was reading, the progress of her children, and the antics of her dogs, chickens, and starlings. In the last year of her life, Babbage accompanied the now frail Lovelace to the Great Exhibition, and encouraged her to “put on worsted stockings, cork soles and every other thing which can keep you warm”. To his annoyance, none of his machines were displayed there.

This article first appeared in the BBC online magazine SCIENCE FOCUS  and is adapted from Chapter 7 of the authors’ new book,  Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist, published by Bodleian Library Publishing.

Celebrating Ada Lovelace’s 200th birthday

As our Bodleian Libraries Lovelace display closed at the end of 2015,  it’s time to look back at a wonderful celebration of the bicentenary of computer pioneer Ada, Countess of Lovelace.

PastedGraphic-3At the heart of the Oxford celebrations were the archives of Lovelace family papers, deposited by their owners in the Oxford’s Bodleian Library, and thus kindly made available to scholars from all over the world.  The 200th anniversary celebrations saw a particular focus on Lovelace’s mathematics, with a new study in preparation by the first professional historians of mathematics to work on this material, Christopher Hollings, of Oxford’s world-leading History of Mathematics group, and Adrian Rice of Ralph Macon University.  They’ve studied the exchange of letters between Lovelace and Augustus De Morgan, one of the leading mathematicians of the day, and shown that in this  ‘correspondence course’ Lovelace,  in her twenties,  is studying at the level of university students of the day, with a knack for asking perceptive questions, and that  De Morgan thought highly of her abilities and discussed with her cutting edge research of the time. Thanks to the generosity of the Clay Mathematics Institute and the descendants of Ada Lovelace, a digital edition of Lovelace’s mathematical papers, based on this research, has been made available online.


Display, Bodleian Library

The Bodleian’s display drawn from these papers, curated by Dr Mary Clapinson and Professor Ursula Martin, opened on 15 October 2015, and also included items from the Oxford Museum of the History of Science and Somerville College. Items on display included Lovelace’s childhood exercise books and a charming letter in which she speculates about making a flying horse; her correspondence with Babbage and her complaints to her mother about him;  her mathematical notes and speculations, and the only known photographs of Lovelace, kindly loaned by a private collector.

Symposium in Oxford on 9 and 10 December 2015  attracted around 300 participants, including around 50 students who were sponsored by AdaCore, Elsevier, the Clay Mathematics Institute, Google and the London Mathematical Society. Support from the ACM allowed recording and archiving of the lectures on the Oxford Podcasts website.


Babbage addition mechanism, RHUL

Interdisciplinary presentations included computer scientists, mathematicians, historians and a graphic artist, and demonstrations from UK and German research projects. A workshop organized by students in the Faculty of English reflects an increasing appreciation of Lovelace’s cultural role. Taylor and Francis, who as Taylors, published Lovelace’s paper on Babbage’s analytical engine in 1843, sponsored an excellent birthday cake. A dinner in Balliol College was preceded by a reception in the Blackwell Hall of the Bodleian Library, with the Earl of Lytton proposing a toast to his great-great-grandmother Ada Lovelace, and the premiere of pieces by James Whitbourn.


The Earl of Lytton

We have had  an amazing and positive response in thank you notes, articles and tweets. Valerie Barr summed up the  interdisciplinary awareness: ‘As a computer scientist, I was humbled by the extent of research the scholars from the humanities disciplines have done. They have faced a significant big data problem, reading letters and diaries from multiple people that spanned decades, drawing connections between them, using calendars and newspapers to confirm and clarify details.’ Others  wrote: ‘incredible experience, dramatic, moving, educational, cathartic. Will never forget it’, ‘in terms of interdisciplinary engagement across very different  disciplines, it was one of the best conferences I have been to’ and ‘I have never  attended a Symposium of such multi-disciplinary interest, and such constant intellectual and imaginative stimulation, provocation, nudging’ and many more kind things.


Exhibition, Science Museum, London

The Oxford team advised on a BBC Radio programme of Lovelace’s letters, developed by Georgina Ferry. We also provided material and advice for the Science Museum, London, whose Ada Lovelace exhibition runs from October 2015 to April 2016, and includes a magnificent portrait of Ada Lovelace from the UK government art collection, a lock of Lovelace’s hair, Babbage’s demonstration models of his difference engines, Lovelace’s whimsical correspondence with Faraday, and letters of  Lovelace and her family borrowed from  the Bodleian archive.


3-D printing at the hackathon

Lovelace’s interests in music were also celebrated with a music research event led by Professor David De Roure and composer Emily Howard. Wadham College ran outreach activities based on the display, the Bodleian Library and Sandbox Education hosted a kids mini-hack, a team of students put together an Ada Lovelace hackathon with 3D printing designs for an analytical engine provided  by Sydney Padua, and the Bodleian Library celebrated Ada Lovelace Day with a week of Wikimedia editing events. Women in science were the focus of the Oxford Department of Computer Science’s inaugural Ada Lovelace lecture given by Turing Award winner Barbara Liskov, and sponsored by Facebook, and Somerville College hosted a women in computing event with international speakers.

PastedGraphic-2 With EPSRC support, we  partnered with Queen Mary University of London, whose  cs4fn is a global campaign to enthuse and teach both students and others about inter-disciplinary computer science research. They have created a special ‘Ada Lovelace’ edition of their cs4fn magazine, with around 20,000 copies distributed to UK schools, and linked web activities. Working with The National Museum of Computing in Bletchley, UK, and the Computer History Museum in  Mountain View, California, we developed a competition for young women to ‘Write a letter to Ada’,  which attracted over 1,000 entries. The National Museum of Computing  houses the largest collection of functional historic computers in Europe, including a rebuilt Colossus, the world’s first electronic computer, and we were delighted that Colossus veterans Irene Dixon and Betty O’Connell were able to present the UK  prizes at the Ada Lovelace Symposium.


Computer History Museum

Internationally, we partnered with the Computer History Museum, the world’s leading institution exploring the history of computing and its ongoing impact on society. The Museum is dedicated to the preservation and celebration of computer history, and is home to the largest international collection of computing artifacts in the world, encompassing computer hardware, software, documentation, ephemera, photographs, oral histories and moving images.


Computer History Museum, Thinking Big

Thinking Big: Ada Countess of Lovelace‘, which opened on Lovelace’s 200th birthday, 10 December 2015, is a re-presentation of the curatorial material from the Bodleian’s display, under the direction of the Computer History Museum’s Vice-President of Collections & Exhibitions, Kirsten Tashev.  Supporting activities included an opening event with YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, family fun days,  demonstrations of the modern  reconstruction of Babbage’s unbuilt Difference Engine,  a parallel US version of the ‘Write a letter to Ada’ competition, and a panel discussion with  Oxford’s Ursula Martin, Ada Lovelace biographer Dr Betty Toole, and Charles Babbage expert Tim Robinson.

There is more to come, including a movie biopic from Alison Owen and Debra Hayward’s Monumental Pictures, in partnership with google and the National Academy of Sciences.

WJ3170_OXF_AdaLovelace_Sponsor_LogosAll this was made possible through generous sponsors and partners. We were delighted  to partner with the Clay Mathematics Institute, the Computer History Museum, cs4fn, the National Museum of Computing and the Science Museum. Within Oxford we gratefully acknowledge support from: the Bodleian Libraries, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of English, Mathematical Institute, Balliol College, Jesus College, Somerville College, Wadham College, the Oxford e-Research Centre, Oxford Women in Computer Science Society, and The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities.   We gratefully acknowledge sponsorship from: AdaCore, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Association for Computing Machinery, British Computer Society, Clay Mathematics Institute, Elsevier, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Google, the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, the London Mathematical Society, and Taylor and Francis.

Post written by Professor Ursula Martin, Department of Computer Science, University of Oxford, Director of Oxford’s Ada Lovelace Bicentenary Celebrations.

Blog post images courtesy of Jennifer Balakrishnan, Stuart Bebb, Bodleian Library, cs4fn, Ursula Martin, Beth McMillan, and Walter Sedriks. 

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.

sponsored by Corriculo

Numbers into Notes – Ada Lovelace and Music

A photo of Emily Howard explaining numbers into notes

Emily Howard explains ‘numbers into notes’ (with permission from photographer Angela Guyton)

Ada Lovelace’s significant contributions were celebrated and discussed at the Ada Lovelace Symposium last week, marking the bicentennial of her birth on 10 December 1815.  Lovelace brought important early insights into mathematics and computation, especially in the context of the Analytical Engine proposed by her collaborator Charles Babbage. She also brought her vision and computational intuitions to music, asking whether ‘the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent’.

On 30 November we explored mathematics, computation, and music through a performance of ‘Ada sketches‘, a short operatic work by composed by Emily Howard and part of her Lovelace Trilogy. More than a performance, this event with Emily Howard and musicians from the Northern Royal College of Music involved mathematical explanation and engaged the audience in composition, turning numbers into notes. We revisited this work at the Ada Lovelace Symposium through an interactive display and a conversation on stage between David De Roure and Emily Howard, herself a mathematician, computer scientist and musician.  This also featured an extract of Howard’s work ‘Mesmerism’, another part of the Trilogy, and illustrated numbers and notes by generating a number sequence on a simulator of the Analytical Engine and developing the output as a musical theme—an exercise inspired by discussions at a music hack day held at Goldsmiths in October. The evening saw world premières of  ‘An algorithmic study on ADA’ and ‘ADA’, composed by James Whitbourn, performed by mixed-voice contemporary choir with violin and harp.

The event was supported by digital music research projects Transforming Musicology(AHRC, led by Goldsmiths, University of London) and “FAST” (EPSRC, led by Queen Mary University of London), and organized at University of Oxford by a partnership of thee-Research Centre, Centre for Digital Scholarship, and The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities, in collaboration with symposium organizer Professor Ursula Martin, theMathematical Institute, and Department of Computer Science.  The performance was supported by the Royal Northern College of Music, Leverhulme Trust and University of Liverpool.

–Dave de Roure, Director, Oxford e-Research Centre

Join us for a kids’ mini-hack on 5 December

192x274hack5 December, 10am-1pm
Centre for Digital Scholarship, Weston Library (Map)

This event is free but places are limited so please complete our booking form to reserve tickets in advance. Open to participants ages 11-16. Parents are encouraged to drop off children and return at 12.30pm to see the final products. Book free tickets.


Get creative in a hands-on computing workshop where we’ll be hacking code & sound at the Weston Library with Sandbox Education.

As part of Oxford’s celebrations of the 200th birthday of computing pioneer Ada Lovelace, we’ll be exploring two of her favourite interests – music and computing.

Our specialist workshop leaders are skilled educators who provide the tools and the skills for you to make and code musical instruments that respond to the environment and create unique sounds.192x74Sandbox-logo

Bare sounds
Working hands-on with the amazing Electric Paint & Touch Board, you will explore the powers of code and electricity to create unique musical instruments.

The Touch Board is a micro controller to prototype musical instrument. It helps you transform sensor data into sound, light or information in the cloud – without needing soldering, wiring or complex programming.

Arduino instruments
With the Arduino & Tinkerkit, you will invent and assemble electronic musical instruments that can respond to the environment – learning coding, physical computing, music participation and having great fun!

The Arduino is a low cost, open-source electronics hardware and software platform that senses and responds to the environment.

Want to know what people have done on previous workshops? Watch Sandbox Education live at Music Tech Fest 2015 in Sweden at

Somerville, science and wikipedia

Whilst Time is Unveiling

By William Skelton (engraver); Charles Reuben Ryley (artist) (The Bodleian Libraries, Oxford) [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

From Martin Poulter, Bodleian Libraries Wikimedian in Residence

In the early 19th century, Mary Somerville was a celebrity scientist. One of her works was the best-selling science book of the time, until overtaken by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. She published on astronomy, biology, atomic theory, and physical geography, at a time when scientific publications by women were rare. She tutored the computing pioneer Ada Lovelace, and introduced Lovelace to Charles Babbage.

Somerville’s name lives on, not least in the Oxford college named in her honour, yet not many people today know of her achievements. One reason is that it is hard to find her works. Her publications have been digitised, but the digitisation process only created images – rather than text, which is easy to find, search within and quote.

On 12 October, a group brought together by University of Oxford IT Services and the Bodleian Libraries started to change that. Working together on Wikisource, a sister-project of Wikipedia, we published a definitive transcription of a Mary Somerville paper from 1826. Being totally open access, the paper incidentally now meets modern funders’ requirements for scientific research outputs.

We also began that day a transcription of Somerville’s Preliminary Dissertation on the Mechanisms of the Heavens; a book described by the astronomer John Herschel as ‘by far the best condensed view of the Newtonian philosophy which has yet appeared’. The transcription was finished this month, and it and other texts are available through Somerville’s Wikisource profile.

This event was just one of a larger programme celebrating the bicentenary of Ada Lovelace. They involved Oxford staff, interested public and experienced Wikipedians, a couple of whom participated remotely. We were lucky to have two excellent guest speakers in Prof Ursula Martin and Prof Sylvia McLain. Each event improved a different aspect of open knowledge about women’s achievements in science and related fields.

In the edit-a-thon and improve-a-thon, we created 8 Wikipedia articles about notable women scientists — some living, some historic — and improved a further 16 existing articles. Creating an article from scratch can be a time-consuming process, but fixing clumsy wording or adding a cited fact is relatively quick.

Wikipedia’s new visual editor works like a word processor, so new users can write or improve articles without having to learn wiki code. We found that this makes Wikipedia editing much quicker to learn, quicker to do, and hence more enjoyable.

Our goal was not just to write biographies but to improve the web of knowledge to fairly represent women’s achievements. Amongst the non-biography articles we improved were those on Mary Somerville’s bestseller On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences and on the Finkbeiner test — important reading for anyone who writes about women scientists!

The 4th workshop was an image-a-thon, looking at Wikipedia’s sister project, Wikimedia Commons, and at some images of women scientists not yet used in Wikipedia. We also uploaded images from copyright-free sources, improving a total of 20 Wikipedia articles.

A call for material for the image-a-thon drew responses from private collections and cultural institutions. Among the contributions from The John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera is the accompanying illustration from a museum ticket, which now illustrates the Women in science article.

The records of what we did, including the articles edited, images uploaded and feedback are all openly available. More importantly, the process is ongoing. There are more articles that need expanding, re-wording, illustrating, or creating and anyone can join in: see the project pages for more details.

We will keep in touch with the participants and hope they continue as Wikipedians. The feedback from participants includes, ‘I found the session really useful and fun’ and ‘found it a very rewarding and useful experience and would like to continue contributing’ among similar comments, indicating that for some, we have started a habit.

Full programme: Ada Lovelace Symposium

We are delighted to announce the full programme for the Ada Lovelace Symposium on 9 and 10 December, and for the associated  interdisciplinary workshop for graduate students and early-career researchers on 8 December.

Registration is now closed. All events take place in the Mathematical Institute, University of Oxford.  Travel information Other information contact Sarah Baldwin <>

Livestreaming here

Interdisciplinary workshop, Tuesday 8 December

‘Texts and contexts: the cultural legacies of Ada Lovelace’, an interdisciplinary workshop for graduate students and early-career researchers, will include papers on a wide variety of Lovelace-related topics, from Lovelace and Literature, to Lovelace and Lego.  More details and abstracts here can be found at

Ada Lovelace Symposium, Wednesday 9 December

From 9.30am: Coffee and registration
11am: Session 1
Symposium Opening, Alexander Wolf, President of the ACM, Professor at Imperial College London

  • 11.05am, Doron Swade, Royal Holloway, University of London
    Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace: two visions of computing
  • 11.50am, Bernard Sufrin, University of Oxford
    Interpreting dreams of abstract machines
  • 12.30pm, Adrian Johnstone, Royal Holloway, University of London
    Notions and notations: designing computers before computing

1pm: Lunch

1.45pm: Session 2
Chair: Nick Woodhouse, President of the Clay Mathematics Institute

  • 1.45pm, Ursula Martin, University of Oxford and Soren Riis, Queen Mary University of London
    ‘Ada Lovelace, a scientist in the archives
  • 2.30pm, David De Roure, University of Oxford and Emily Howard, Royal Northern College of Music and University of Liverpool
    Turning numbers into notes
  • 3pm, John Barnes, Ada software consultant
    From Byron to the Ada Programming Language
  • 3.15pm, The National Museum of Computing,  ‘Write a letter to Ada’ competition prize giving

3.30pm: Break, refreshments

4pm: Session 3
Chair: Sir Drummond Bone, Master of Balliol College

  • 4pm, Betty Toole, Author
    Ada Lovelace lives forever: Ada’s four questions
  • 4.45pm, Richard Holmes, British Academy
    Will you concede me Poetical Science?

5.45pm: Break and move to Reception and dinner

6.30pm: Reception and dinner
With Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian, and the Rt Hon the Earl of Lytton, and the world premières of two short pieces composed by James Whitbourn,  ‘An algorithmic study on ADA’ and ‘ADA’, performed by the choir Commotio, with Andrew Bernardi (violin) and  Anna Lapwood (harp),  conducted by Matthew Berry. Dinner, with  address by Dame Stephanie Shirley

Thursday, 10th December

9am: Session 4 
Chair: Vicki Hanson, Vice-President of the ACM, professor at University of Dundee and Rochester Institute of Technology9am, June Barrow-Green, Open University

  • Pythagoras to pacifism: mathematics and archives
  • 9.30am, Julia Markus, Hofstra University
    The early education of Ada Byron
  • 10am, Christopher Hollings, University of Oxford
    The mathematical correspondence of Ada Lovelace and Augustus De Morgan

10.30am: Break, refreshments

11am: Session 5
Chair: Sally Shuttleworth, Professor at University of Oxford

  • 11am, Elizabeth Bruton, Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford
    Enchantress of Numbers or a mere debugger?: a brief history of cultural and academic understandings of Ada Lovelace
  • 11.30am, Imogen Forbes-Mcphail, University of California, Berkeley
    The Analytical Engine and the Aeolian Harp
  • 12 noon,Sydney Padua, Graphic Artist and Animator
    Imaginary engines

12.45pm: Lunch

1.30pm: Session 6
Chair: Michael Wooldridge, Head of the Department of Computer Science,  University of Oxford

  • 1.30 pm, Judith Grabiner, Pitzer College
    Mathematics and culture: geometry and its ‘Figures in the Air’
  • 2.15pm, Moshe Vardi, Rice University
    ‘Humans, machines, and the future of work

3pm: Break, and Ada Lovelace’s birthday cake

3.30pm: Panel
Enchantress of Abstraction, Bride of Science: must Ada Lovelace be a superheroine?
Chair: Muffy Calder, University of Glasgow

  • Valerie Barr, Union College and Chair ACM-W
  • Suw Charman-Anderson, Founder of Ada Lovelace Day
  • Murray Pittock, University of Glasgow
  • Cheryl Praeger, University of Western Australia

4.30pm: End

8 December: ‘Text and Contexts: the Cultural Legacies of Ada Lovelace’

Registration is open for ‘Texts and contexts: the cultural legacies of Ada Lovelace’, an interdisciplinary workshop for graduates and early-career researchers. The workshop, taking place on Tuesday 8 December, at 10am  and will include papers on a wide variety of Lovelace-related topics, from Lovelace and Literature, to Lovelace and Lego.

The day will bring together postgraduates, early career researchers, and anyone with an interest in Ada Lovelace, to discuss the cultural influences of Lovelace’s work from the 19th century to the present day.

Our keynote address will be delivered by Professor Sharon Ruston (Lancaster University), who will later be joined in a roundtable discussion by Professor Richard Holmes, Sydney Padua, and Miranda Seymour. We also look forward to hearing papers on a wide variety of topics, from teaching and curating Lovelace in the 21st century, to Lovelace’s influence in the humanities.

The timings for the day are as follows:

9.30-10am Arrivals
10-10.15am Opening remarks
10.15-11.15am Panel 1: Artistic Legacies

  • Imogen Forbes-Macphail, ‘A sentimental mathematical correspondence: Ada Lovelace’s writing’
  • Anne Loveridge, ‘”Unweave a rainbow”: Ada Lovelace and the poetic mystery of science’

11.15-11.30am Coffee
11.30am-12.30pm Panel 2: Computing

  • Melissa Highton, ‘Wikipedia and the “trouble with girls”: edit in the name of Lovelace’
  • Carlo Ierna, ‘Lovelace and Descartes on the limits and possibilities of thinking machines’
  • Jane Waite, ‘Mrs Lovelace teaches year 2 computing’
  • 12.30-1.30pm Lunch

1.30-2.30pm Keynote address by Professor Sharon Ruston
2.30-3.30pm Panel 3: Ada’s Brains

  • Madelaine Schurch, ‘Ada Lovelace, mania, and visionary scientific imagination’
  • Lesley Gray, ‘Magnets and mesmerism: Ada Lovelace at the cusp of reason and romance’
  • Rebecca Barnes, ‘Serious play with Babbage and Lovelace: Lovelace’s role in shaping Babbage’s heuristic turn of mind’

3.30-3.45pm Coffee
3.45-4.45pm Panel 4: Public Engagement

  • Stewart Cromar, ‘LEGO Lovelace: building a modern icon’
  • Katherine Platt, ‘Lovelace at the Science Museum’
  • Georgina Ferry, ‘”If my wave can…follow & touch yours…”: Broadcasting the letters of Ada Lovelace’

4.45-5.45pm Roundtable discussion with Professor Richard Holmes, Sydney Padua, Professor Sharon Ruston, and Miranda Seymour
5.45-6pm Closing remarks

Abstracts for papers can be found on our website at

Contact us with any questions at

Anyone with an interest in Lovelace is welcome to attend. Registration is now closed but contact Sarah Baldwin if you are interested in attending.

Only known photographs of Ada Lovelace in Bodleian Display

The Bodleian Libraries is hosting a special display to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Ada, Countess of Lovelace, the Victorian mathematician who is often referred to as the first computer programmer. It contains two  remarkable daguerreotypes, one reproduced here, a pair made by made by Antoine Claudet in the early 1840s. They  are the only known photographs of Lovelace.

Ada Lovelace, about 1843, image reproduced by courtesy of G M Bond

Daguerreotype of Ada Lovelace, about 1843, reproduced by courtesy of G M Bond

Claudet learned the art of photography from Louis Daguerre, the inventor of one of the earliest photographic processes. He established his first Daguerreotype studio in London, in the Strand, in 1841, then moved to Regent’s Park and finally Regent’s Street. His output was phenomenal – over 1800 portraits a year – and his customers included many well known figures in fashionable, literary and scientific circles, among them Michael Faraday, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace.

He would often take several pictures of his subjects at the same sitting, using elaborate painted backdrops, which recur in several of his images. These allow us to date these pictures of Lovelace to around 1843, at the time when she was writing her famous paper on Babbage’s Analytical Engine.

As well as being customers of the new photographers, Ada Lovelace and her circle were intrigued by the science of photography and the contribution photographic processes might make to science. Apart from her famous paper on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, her only other known publication is in the form of long footnotes to an article by her husband, William Earl of Lovelace, in the Royal Agricultural Society journal. The article, which he describes as being written for the ‘leather-gaiter-and-top-boot-mind’, reviews a paper by the French economist Gasparin, about possible laws linking climate and the yield of crops, referring to a wide variety of observations of weather and plants collected by both professionals and amateurs. Ada Lovelace observes that photographic devices, such as the actinograph designed by her friend John Herschel, allow the construction of ‘meteorological instruments of the utmost delicacy’, and criticises Gasparin ‘who seems to write unaware of the means which photography has offered’.

In similar vein, she reflected on the potential of photography in providing objective evidence of psychic phenomena. In an unpublished article she writes, ‘If amateurs, of either sex, would amuse their idle hours with experimenting on this subject, & would keep an accurate journal of their daily observations, we should in a few years have a mass of registered facts to compare with the observation of the Scientific’, concluding that ‘we believe that it is as yet quite unsuspected how important a part photography is to play in the advancement of human knowledge’.


Daguerreotype of an 1852 painting of Ada Lovelace, reproduced by courtesy of G M Bond

A third poignant daguerreotype, by an unknown photographer, is a photograph of a small portrait of Ada Lovelace, frail and thin, painted by Henry Wyndham Phillips in the last months of her life, when she was in great pain from uterine cancer.  Her husband recorded progress on the portrait in his diary – on 2 August ‘she managed to remain long enough when he came for him to make some progress’, on 3 August that he was ‘getting on with the portrait’, and on 13 August that though ‘the suffering was so great that she could scarce avoid crying out’, yet ‘she sat at the piano some little time so that the artist could portray her hands’. The Bodleian archives contain a note written in her last days, in which she leaves ‘a daguerreotype from Philips’s portrait of me’ to her mother’s friend, Miss Montgomery.

Professor Ursula Martin CBE, University of Oxford