Advice from Ada: Learn To Fly
Ada Lovelace wanted to fly. Many twelve year olds have daydreams about escape, about being able to soar above the clouds and transcend the limits that gravity and other rules place upon them; but the future progenitor of computer programming was determined to do something about it.
She established a “flying room” in the family home, complete with ropes and pulleys for mounting the wings, which were based on those of a dead crow she found while walking in the fields. Her findings were to be published in a book called ‘Flyology’, into which Ada would insert her sketches and schematics.
The applications of this new technology must have seemed manifold to the young countess, but principle among them was the desire to be able to deliver her mother’s mail. For a period she signed her letters with the name ‘Carrier Pigeon’.
Her mother may have been alarmed. Ada was, after all, the daughter of the “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” Lord Byron. Lady Annabella Byron had hoped that by focussing her daughter’s studies away from literature towards less flighty (if you’ll pardon the pun) concerns such as mathematics, she could prevent her from succumbing to the “madness” that had afflicted her late husband.
Nevertheless, the child’s curiosity about the world – about how it worked, about how innovations could be made – was encouraged. It was this curiosity that would inform much of her work as an adult.
One such project was her attempt to establish a ‘calculus of the nervous system’. Why did her brain work the way it did? Could the mind be mapped like the orbits of the planets? Could the latest developments in the field of electricity assist with this?
Ada was keen to know the answers, but she couldn’t do it alone.
Lovelace knew that ideas are strongest when they can be bounced around, that experience should be shared, and that collaboration can fill gaps in knowledge. She needed an expert.
Luckily, as an aristocrat, Lovelace was able to go straight to the top. She got in touch with Michael Faraday, who put her in touch with Andrew Crosse, who was able to teach her about electrical experiments. While the calculus of the nervous system was never realised, it’s clear that these experiences widened her horizons in ways she couldn’t have expected.
Her most famous collaboration was with the mathematician Charles Babbage, who invented an early precursor to the computer that he called the Analytical Engine, a hypothetical machine that could be programmed by means of a set of punching cards. The problem was that at the time, most people didn’t understand its use. It was Lovelace who, in translating an Italian mathematician’s article on the machine, appended a set of notes describing how the punching cards could be arranged to calculate Bernouilli numbers.
This was the world’s first computer program.
The word curious comes from the Latin curiosus. It’s interesting that one of the root words for this term is cura, or ‘care’. We don’t often associate curiosity, that marker of oddities and killer of cats, with diligence. And yet, for many curious people, that’s what it takes. They do their homework. The collaborate. They gather evidence. We also encounter this word in a different sense; they care about things. If they didn’t, they’d be doing something else.
This drive is a trait shared by many curious people; by those hungry for knowledge and improvement. In a culture that sometimes seems to be dominated by irony and apathy, curiosity can be a powerful force.
Of course, this can have its negative side. As an adult, Lovelace incurred serious gambling debts after her attempt to develop a mathematical model for betting on the horses failed. The family jewels were twice pawned. And yet, there is something admirable about the omnivorous zeal with which Lovelace approached life. Ideas often spawn in the cracks when no one is looking; the history of science is littered with examples of unintended consequences blossoming into major developments.
Issac Newton wasn’t thinking of space flight and satellites when that apple landed on his head. Alexander Fleming wasn’t thinking of antibiotics when he noticed that some of his bacteria had been killed by mould while he was away on holiday. Marie Curie wasn’t thinking of cancer therapy when she was extracting radium from pitchblende.
Ada Lovelace couldn’t have known how her work would go on to affect the wider world, or the future we live in today. Her work that is remembered today came from curiosity, from asking why, and the results were often tangenital to her initial motivations.
So be curious. Work together. And look for those flowers that bloom in the cracks of the pathway of knowledge.