Tag Archives: Ada Lovelace

Celebrating the 200th anniversary of computer visionary Ada Lovelace

In 2015 the University of Oxford will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of computer visionary Ada Lovelace.  The centrepiece of the celebrations will be a display at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library (29 October – 18 December 2015)  and a Symposium (9 and 10 December 2015), presenting Lovelace’s life and work, and  contemporary thinking on computing and artificial intelligence.

An engraved portrait of Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace.

An engraved portrait of Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. Drawn by Alfred Edward Chalon (1780–1860); Engraved by William Henry Mote (1803–1871)

Ada, Countess of Lovelace (1815–1852), is best known for a remarkable article about Charles Babbage’s unbuilt computer, the Analytical Engine. This presented the first documented computer program, to calculate the Bernoulli numbers, and explained the  ideas  underlying Babbage’s  machine – and every one of the billions of computers and computer programs in use today. Going  beyond Babbage’s ideas of computers as manipulating numbers, Lovelace also wrote about their creative possibilities and limits: her contribution was highlighted in one of Alan Turing’s most famous papers ‘Can a machine think?’ Lovelace had wide scientific and intellectual interests and studied with scientist Mary Somerville, and with  Augustus De Morgan, a leading mathematician and pioneer in logic and algebra.

The display, in the Bodleian’s new Weston Library, will offer a chance to see Lovelace’s correspondence with  Babbage, De Morgan, Somerville and others, and her childhood exercises and  mathematical notes.  The  Symposium, on 9th and 10th December 2015, is aimed at a broad audience interested in the history and culture of mathematics and computer science, presenting current scholarship on Lovelace’s life and work, and linking her ideas to contemporary thinking about computing, artificial intelligence and the brain. Confirmed speakers so far include Lovelace biographer Betty Toole, computer historian Doron Swade, mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, and graphic novelist Sydney Padua. Other activities will include a workshop for early career researchers, a “Music and Machines” event, and a dinner in Balliol College on 9th December, the eve of Lovelace’s 200th birthday.

Oxford’s celebration is led by the Bodleian Libraries and the University of Oxford’s Department of Computer Science, working with colleagues in the Mathematics Institute, Oxford e-Research Centre, Somerville College,  the Department of English and TORCH. Oxford has a remarkable history of programming research, with two winners of the ACM A.M. Turing Award, the Nobel Prize for Computer Science, and the unique breadth and depth of Oxford’s expertise brings a variety of perspectives to understanding Lovelace and the remarkable intellectual community around her, whose ideas
underpin modern computing.

For more information, please keep an eye on our Ada Lovelace website, where we’ll be listing events, and other news. Please register your interest to receive an email when we open up the Symposium to registration in June 2015.

Professor Ursula Martin
Department of Computer Science
University of Oxford

Women in Science Editathon: Ada Lovelace Day 2013

300px-Ada_Lovelace_color.svgOn Tuesday 15 October, IT Services and the Libraries celebrated Ada Lovelace Day by hosting a Wikipedia editathon focused on women in science. The event was a success, with over 20 participants and  coverage in national newspapers. Ada Lovelace is widely held to have been the first computer programmer, and Ada Lovelace Day aims to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire. This annual day of celebration helps people learn about the achievements of women in STEM, inspiring others and creating new role models for young and old alike. A Wikipedia editathon celebrates the spirit of Ada Lovelace Day by helping people learn about the  contribution of individual women to the world of science, and the aim of our editathon was to add to and improve the coverage of individuals, events and resources related to women in science. The afternoon kicked off with a welcome from Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an Oxford astrophysicist who discovered the first radio pulsars. This was followed by a short training session by the Jisc Wikimedian Ambassador, Martin Poulter, who taught new editors the basics and gave them a bit of background on Wikipedia culture.

Once his training was over, Martin sent participants straight to their computers to get started. We had a small group of Wikipedia helpers who wandered the room, offering assistance where needed, but many editors were content to jump straight in, using reference books and resources provided. We had provided a short list of suggestions, including a number of Oxford-related women, and by the end of the day entries had been created for Margaret Jennings (one of the members of the penicillin team working under Howard Florey), Audrey Arnott (a medical illustrator working with Hugh Cairns), Mabel Purefoy Fitzgerald (a physiologist), Antoinette Pirie (who worked with Ida Mann) and Cecilia Glaisher (a botanical photographer in the Victorian period). A wide variety of other articles were improved and updated, and the Wikipedia trainers were particularly pleased with the skill, knowledge and enthusiasm with which editors worked – even those who had never edited Wikipedia before!ada cake 2013

The event was accompanied by a morning session by the Jisc Ambassador on using Wikipedia in teaching and research (see http://blogs.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/23things/wikipedia-learning-by-sharing-knowledge/). It was covered in a Guardian piece by organizers Liz McCarthy (Bodleian Libraries) and Kate Lindsay (IT Services).


Women In Science – London Metropolitan Archives Conference

The Saving Oxford Medicine project team have been acquiring, preserving and cataloguing the archives of Oxford-based scientists such as Lady Julia Bodmer, Edith Bülbring, Dorothy Hodgkin, Ida Mann and Mary Somerville. Naturally we were excited to attend the Women in Science event hosted by London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) on 8 March 2013. This event explored the lives and varied contributions of women to scientific progress. And what better day to celebrate pioneering women in science than on International Women’s Day! The event also proved a great complement to the recent global Wikipedia Editathon we attended during Open Access Week in Oxford. This was held to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day and the many, often overlooked contributions made by female scientists.

Dorothy Hodgkin

Howard Benge and Jan Pimblett from the LMA kicked off the day and introduced us to some of the work they have been carrying out to identify science-related material within the millions of documents held in the Archive.

We then started to think about the kinds of scientific work women have been involved in historically, and how we can uncover their work. Importantly, as Howard suggested, there is still a prevailing attitude that women shun the study of science, which makes determining the impact of female scientists problematic (we should also remember that institutions like the Royal Society closed their doors to women as Fellows until 1945, and as such makes female scientists harder to unearth). A thread running through the day with other speakers was that to discover the contributions of female scientists, we must broaden our conceptual net. For example, rather than focusing on ‘pure science’ as such, we should embrace the application of science in society. For instance, the LMA holds collections that relate to food science (not generally regarded as a science per se until modern times), such as freezing and crystallisation, and the Lyons collection illsutrates the development of techniques relating to ice cream.

With this wider framework of applied science in mind, Rebekah Higgitt, Curator and historian of science at Royal Observatory Greenwich and National Maritime Museum then continued the theme, and discussed the definition of ‘someone who does science’ (you can read Rebeka’s Guardian blog here). Rebekah emphasised the different kinds of scientific research and work undertaken by women, and some examples of influential female scientists were highlighted. We heard about Maria Merian, the German artist-naturalist; instrument maker Janet Taylor; publisher, teacher and astronomer Margaret Bryan; Mary Edwards, the ‘human computer’ and Mary Annings, the palaeontologist who ran a fossil shop. All of the above women contributed to science on a daily basis, working close to their homes. It was also noted that from the early twentieth century, ‘new’ science gave women more opportunities to make their name, which had previously been difficult in the traditional fields of physics, astronomy and botany. Crystallographers such as Dorothy Hodgkin and Rosalind Franklin are notable examples here, as is the geneticist Julia Bodmer.

Bridget Howlett then gave an engaging presentation on the LMA collections relating to Florence Nightingale. This includes correspondence from the Crimean War, and training records of the nursing school Nightingale established at St. Thomas’ Hospital. Bridget suggested that although Nightingale is often thought of as ‘anti-science’ for her rejection of the germ theory, she nevertheless supported women’s education and women’s participation in medicine and science. Moreover, not only are her contributions to professional nursing notable, she was a talented statistician and devised a system of accounts for the army during the war. Nightingale also promoted the education of sanitary science and campaigned strongly for the 1867 Metropolitan Poor Act to ensure the provision of infirmaries for sick paupers. As such, Florence Nightingale should without doubt be celebrated as a pioneering woman in science. Here at the Bodleian we hold correspondence from Nightingale in some of our collections.

Jan Pimblett then explained how the LMA uses the archives in public engagement, after which we were given the opportunity to view some original documents from collections that represent influential women in science. A personal favourite was the letter illustrated below from the physician and feminist Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. As the founder of The New Hospital for Women (the first hospital staffed by women), Anderson was the first woman to train and qualify as a doctor in Britain; although as a woman, she battled to be accepted to train for her license to practice as a doctor. She gained much of her training through private tuition.

Letter from Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, 1863

In the letter, Anderson asks a Dr. Hastings to accept her for private instruction in anatomy, and the difficulties she faced are evident. She eventually qualified through the Society of Apothecaries; two years later the Society changed its rules and barred women from taking the exam.

In keeping with the theme of the day and women’s varied and perhaps unlikely or underestimated contributions to science, Tom Richards then discussed his fascinating research on Daphne Oram. Oram invented the early digital workstation known as the Oramics Machine, which enabled her to draw sounds. Her scientific technique and invention was a key musical development, helping to pave the way for modern electronic music. Oram’s work also included co-founding the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1958. Daphne Oram’s archive is currently held at Goldsmiths University of London Special Collections.

Anne Locker was the last speaker of the day, and she gave a presentation on early women engineers and scientists whose records are held at the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) Archives. The IET collection represents women from the early twentieth century. During the First World War, women began to participate in engineering jobs and the IET Archive holds the records of electrical engineer Dame Caroline Haslett and reflect her involvement with the Electrical Association for Women (EAW). Haslett was the first Secretary of the Engineering Society and founder and editor of the journal The Woman Engineer. We also heard about the feminist Hertha Ayrton, the first woman to grace the IET. Ayrton worked on electric arcs and ripples in sand and water. The Archive also holds the records of IET Fellow Dr. Elizabeth Laverick, who was the first female Deputy Secretary of the Institute of Electrical Engineers. Like many of the scientists we heard about throughout the day, Laverick was particularly interested in education, and she worked hard to promote engineering as a profession.

Like others had commented on during the day, Anne also emphasised that even though there were a large number of women working in engineering and technology in the earlier period, they are under-represented, and even though they are documented in records, we still don’t know about many of them.

These are just a sample of the many women in science we heard about during the day, and the LMA staff and other speakers provided some thought-provoking and lively discussions about how women have contributed their ideas and work to science, some well-known, others more obscure. Further work in archives is likely to reveal that women played a more prominent role in scientific enterprises than has previously been recognised. It was great to make links with our Saving Oxford Medicine initiative at the Bodleian, and also hear about the work others are doing in a similar field. We are grateful to LMA for the effort they put into the day, and look forward to similar future events.

Women in Science and Wikipedia

Saving Oxford Medicine archivists recently attended the Oxford Wikipedia Editathon: Women in Science, an event held in conjunction with Open Access Week. Held at the Radcliffe Science Library, this hands-on workshop followed a similar event at the Royal Society that was held as part of the Ada Lovelace Day celebrations. Similar sessions were held worldwide. The events aimed to enhance the Wikipedia profiles of leading female scientists, many of whom have been overlooked by the online encyclopaedia. By promoting the scientific discoveries of women, it was also hoped the events would play a role in encouraging the visibility of women working in the fields of science and technology.

During the Oxford editathon, Saving Oxford Medicine contributed by creating a Wikipedia entry for the geneticist Lady Julia Gwynaeth Bodmer, whose papers are currently being catalogued, and enhancing existing entries for the ophthalmologist Ida Mann, the pharmacologist and physiologist Edith Bülbring, and the neuroscientist Marthe Vogt. Papers of Mann and Bülbring have been catalogued as part of Saving Oxford Medicine. Bülbring and Vogt worked together in Berlin and came to England in the 1930s. Bülbring helped Vogt to find work in England, and her papers show her support for Vogt’s appeal against an order for internment in 1940.

Women and Wikipedia
Ada Lovelace by Margaret Carpenter, 1836

Other participants at the Oxford event improved entries for a number of women who made significant contributions to science, including Cynthia Longfield, Rosalind Pitt Rivers, Thekla Resvoll, Bertha Swirles and Sydney Mary Thompson and, significantly for the Bodleian Library, Mary Somerville. The Somerville papers are held by the Library on loan from Somerville College, and the catalogue is currently being revised with a view to publishing it online. The papers contain numerous letters received by Mary and members of her family from Ada Lovelace between 1834 and 1851, just a year before her death. It is said that Mary Somerville introduced Ada to Charles Babbage, with whom she collaborated on the ‘Analytical Engine’.