24 March was, of course, Budget Day. To hijack one of the phrases of our times, a good day to bury pretty much any kind of news that wasn’t about NI contributions, duty rates on cider or stamp duty. Scanning the main news headlines for the day on the web, little else got a look in. There was a murder in a Post Office, and the UK’s Diplomatic spat with Israel grew slightly sharper teeth, but one anniversary passed unmarked by the majority of us. Given the nature of the anniversary, the reasons for celebrating it, and its resonance, it would be uplifting to think a sense of irony might register. But allow us to explain – March 24 was Ada Lovelace Day.

For those of you now mouthing the word ‘Who?’ at your computer screens, Ada Lovelace is widely regarded as having been the world’s first computer programmer. In her mid-20s, she met and corresponded on a number of occasions with Charles Babbage, the early computing pioneer. Referred to by him as ‘the Enchantress of Numbers’, her writings played a crucial role in the operation of his Difference Engines (the world’s earliest version of a computer); although his subsequent Analytic Engine was never completed, it would not in any case have functioned correctly if not for her analysis and correction of his own workings.

Yet even those who are pioneers in some fields can be oddly conventional in others. Whether because one of his contributors was a woman, or because he was not given to acknowledging the contributions of others, Ada received scant recognition for her work during her lifetime. Although her notes and writings suggest she saw possibilities for his machines that exceeded Byron’s own vision – including the incredible prediction for the 1840’s that machines might compose “elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent” (which puts her a century ahead of the development of synthesisers, sequencers and the other technologies that create the music she might dance to were she alive today) – it seems the Glass Ceiling was as integral to Ada’s life as it was to the Crystal Palace that was built in 1851, the year before her death at the age of 36.

Sarah Brown, wife of the Prime Minister, acknowledged her – and her memorial day, celebrated by bloggers across the world – in an article written for Reuters:

You might not have heard of Ada – but you wouldn’t be reading this without her. Everybody knows about the fathers of computing – people like Charles Babbage and Alan Turing – but it’s time to celebrate the mothers too.

Ada Lovelace was one of the first ever computer programmers and Ada Lovelace Day (tagged as #ALD10 on Twitter) is our chance to draw attention both to what she achieved, and to the women who stand on her shoulders today.”

Sarah Brown isn’t the only commentator to have picked up on Ada Lovelace, and the broader themes of equality and diversity. Danny O’Brien wrote an article in the Irish Times, Ada Lovelace will have her day after all, in which he noted that the role of women in science and technology – which the day is intended to celebrate – is still sadly imbalanced:

Sadly, her gender remains drastically under- represented and that imbalance remains particularly bad in the one area of computing that one would expect to be the most open to new ideas and communities – open-source software development.

Anyone can join an open-source project. Communally run, you need no interviews or prior experience to contribute. All you need is a computer and an internet connection to start work on these free-to-join, free-to- distribute, free-to-use,software and hardware projects.

In practice, open-source lags behind other disciplines in its gender diversity.

A 2006 census of the Ubuntu community, one of the more consciously welcoming of open- source projects, showed only 2.4 per cent who were identified as women. This is profoundly worse than the level of involvement by women in technical professions or academic computer science, which has levels of between 10 and 30 per cent.”

But Sarah Brown’s piece included another name that made me realise that social stereotyping and conventions can lead to behaviours that undermine or undervalue the contributions of more than just women. Alan Turing quoted Lady Lovelace in his original article that proposed the Turing test (a classic computing test designed to guage a machine’s ability to demonstrate intelligence), citing her objection to “artificial intelligence”:

The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths.”

Turing himself, of course, lived just 6 years longer than Ada, taking his own life at the age of 42 after being sentenced to chemical treatment as a result of his ‘offence’ of being a gay man at a time when to be so was illegal. Although his name is now relatively widely known, it is mostly associated with his work at Bletchley Park in cracking the code of the German Enigma machine during the Second World War. While his contribution to the eventual defeat of Hitlers’ Armies cannot, of course, be overlooked, it’s not an overstatement to describe it as merely one element of his life’s work as very much ‘the father of modern computing’.

Indeed, in response to a Downing Street petition (which triggered tens of thousands of people to use the computers we might not have without Turing – or Lovelace), Sarah’s husband, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, issued a statement of posthumous apology to Turing in September 2009. The full text of which is (appropriately enough) available online, but the following abridged extract gives a flavour:

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him.

[…] This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue. […]

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. […] It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present.

So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.”

We cannot all, of course, expect to leave legacies – even if they are unrealized during our own lifetimes – as powerful, valuable or potent as those of Lovelace or Turing. Or indeed of others whose worth may have been overlooked for reasons that had little or nothing to do with their skills and abilities: skin colour, religious belief, ethic group – the list is sadly a long one.

Through their work, Ada and Alan leave us an enormously rich legacy. Hindsight shows us that they leave us an equally vital lesson: that abandoning a belief in equality and in the value of welcoming diversity, we can deprive not just the talented of the opportunity to fulfil their potential but also the less-talented of the opportunity to benefit from their work and their contributions.

I’ll leave the final words to a contributed comment to a posting about Turing at the blog codinghorror.com:

History has brought us many people which we describe as geniuses. It’s very difficult to say who is the most important one. In fact it’s impossible. From Ada Lovelace to the people writing the history of tomorrow right now, they all deserve our deepest adoration.”

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