Ada Lovelace, Technical Writer

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Oct 11, 2012 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Ada Lovelace is often credited with being the first computer programmer. However, a few dissenters gleefully debunk this claim, insisting that she merely organized Charles Babbage's notes. Trying to evaluate these conflicting claims, I realized suddenly that, even if the debunkers are right, Lovelace should still be called the first technical writer -- a role that deserves equal credit, and no less so for being frequently under-valued.

The controversy about Lovelace's status as a programmer centers on her translation of Luigi Menabrea's transcript of a lecture by Charles Babbage at the University of Turin in the early 1840s. Lovelace added seven notes that were longer than the translation itself, many of them highly technical. In particular, Note G describes an algorithm for computing Bernoulli numbers and a table showing the punch card flow that is often supposed to be the first computer program.

Would-be debunkers point out that Lovelace had difficulties with mathematics, although failing to mention that she was learning them while trying to work with them. The debunkers also cite Babbage's autobiography, in which he says that he was the one who worked out the algorithm in Note G. 

Similarly, while acknowledging that she detected an error in Babbage's math, and broke down of the basic equation into simpler formulas, they overlook the obvious conclusion: that she must have known what she was talking about, no matter how laboriously she obtained that knowledge.

Instead, Lovelace's critics prefer to dismiss her as bipolar, and with an exaggerated sense of her own importance and contributions. On no evidence whatsoever, they suggest that Babbage encouraged her delusions for the sake of publicity, although everything about the man shows that he was not exactly the sort to suffer fools, much less to encourage or to collaborate with them. In its refusal to consider such implications, the debunkers' claim has always seemed to me relentlessly literal-minded, even though it raises some legitimate doubts.

An under-valued role
The questioning of Lovelace's role has always been heavily tainted with misognyny. Historical revision is one thing, but condemning her, as Bruce Collier does, as "a manic depressive with the most amazing delusions about her own talents," "mad as a hatter," and "the most overrated figure in the history of computers" entirely another. Even if the case for re-evaluating Lovelace was on firmer ground than it is, this kind of name-calling would be out of place. Lovelace's critics simply get too much enjoyment out of denigrating her to be interested solely in finding the truth.

Moreover, the name-calling dismisses what cannot be questioned: Lovelace's obvious writing ability. For instance, although Jim Holt concedes that she contributed analogies, such as likening the Analytical Engine to automatic weaving looms, his wording suggests that this is a minor contribution. But the truth is, the ability to find the right analogy is a rare and valued talent for any writer on technical subjects -- especially cutting edge ones, as the Analytical Engine was in the early 1840s.

Nor do her detractors ever acknowledge that, despite the technical subject, Lovelace's notes are highly structured, and, by the standards of her time, a model of clarity (most moderns would find them verbose). In fact, her writing compares favorably with that of Charles Darwin, the great prose stylist of Victorian science, who was also known for the strength of his analogies.

Lovelace could hardly have written so well if she had been the mathematical ignoramus the debunkers claim. A more plausible scenario is that, like many technical writers today, she was grappling with her topic as she wrote. Had she ultimately failed to comprehend, then her Notes would have been nowhere near as lucid or detailed as they are.

But then, technical writing is almost always under-rated. If it succeeds, as Lovelace's does, it looks easy and nobody values it. After all, everyone learned how to write in school. And the nature of technical writing, like typography, is that it looks easy -- until you try to replicate it.

The truth is more complex. Successful technical writing is a hybrid talent, requiring both an ability to write and, if not expertise, at least the ability to obtain it quickly. 

Some technical writers de-emphasize the expertise, styling themselves communications experts, which is why so many instructions with software and hardware are useless. Yet, as Babbage himself shows, the reverse is also true: an expert may be unable to convey ideas so that others can understand and appreciate them. Those who can do both are few, and they seldom get the appreciation they deserve.

To write her Notes, Lovelace had material from Babbage. Probably, too, she had memories and rough jottings based on conversations with Babbage. Yet you only have to compare Babbage's rambling, disjointed writing (which, although sometimes charming, has always seemed to me an analog of his life) to the Notes to realize that he contributed little to their final form. Someone understood what Babbage was saying enough to grasp its implications, and then to present his ideas so that others could understand as well -- and the only person on the scene to do these things was Augusta Ada King, the Countess of Lovelace.

Probably, Lovelace deserves full credit for the work that bears her name, but we can not be quite sure. Whether she deserves to be an icon of women in computing is less certain; so far as I know, Lovelace showed no interest in encouraging women in science, apparently regarding herself as unique. 

By contrast, Lovelace's skills as a technical writer are visible for everyone to see. As a former technical writer myself, I think those in the field are overdue to recognize her as one of their own. Maybe, just maybe, that would be one small step towards giving the profession the respect it deserves in modern computing.

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