Saturday, February 20, 2016

Ada.Ada.Ada - an illuminating history of the complex woman behind the first complex computer programme

Domineered by her mother, and inheriting her father’s capacity to take reckless risks, Ada Lovelace pioneered what would become known as computer programming a hundred years before Alan Turing and Bletchley Park found an urgent reason to exploit the theory.

Ordered instructions, looping and conditional branching were supported by Charles Babbage’s as yet unbuilt Analytical Engine with its ‘store’ (memory), ‘mill’ (processor) and ‘printer’ (display).

Ada wrote a complex programme – on paper – to compute Bernoulli numbers in 1843 that would have accurately (perhaps after debugging!) churned out figures which were computationally intensive and prone to human error. [In 2008 it took the software package Mathematica nearly 6 days to calculate the 10 millionth Bernoulli number.]

When Babbage – 24 years her senior – moved away from his simpler Difference Engine to create the design for the all-purpose Analytical Engine, it was his colleague Ada Lovelace who recognised that it “doesn’t occupy mere common ground with calculating machines”.

Zoe Philpott combines the roles of history of science lecturer and enthusiast and Ada Lovelace in the one woman show Ada.Ada.Ada. Her dress – made by Kat Behague – is fitted with 4,400 addressable LEDs under the front of the overskirt and across the bodice and the patterns displayed tie in with the story. In tonight’s performance as part of NI Science Festival, Conway’s Game of Life seemed to make an appearance early on and towards the end lighting designer Charles Yarnold/Matt Haskins’ flames were particularly alarming! The bustle could disguise a mainframe computer never mind a battery pack or two.

At times the delivery of Ada’s lines seemed faltering and hesitant with a reliance on the book of letters held in Philpott’s gloved hand. But the insight into Ada’s short life and detail of her observations as well as roping in the audience to demonstrate how the Analytical Engine worked carried the hour long performance to conclusion.

It’s a tale of family breakup, a mother who invested heavily in her daughter’s education (suppressing the creative influence of her absent father (the poet Lord Bryon) and pushing the child towards mathematics and science. It’s amazing to realise that Ada attended salons that put gentlemen greats like Faraday, Darwin and Dickens in contact with her intellect.

While Ada’s brain and imagination were stimulated by the fields of analysis and maths, she still had time for an affair (aged fifteen) with her tutor as well as addictions to opium and gambling that suggest she was her father’s daughter after all. They’ll not tell you that in Computer Science lectures!

Ultimately it’s a story about a talented woman whose contribution to computing was so very nearly omitted from history. And a wake up call for today’s tech industry that is still overwhelming male (and even more overwhelmingly led by men) on top of the diminishing numbers of women enrolling in tech courses in tertiary education.

Find about more about Ada.Ada.Ada on the show’s website and Twitter feed, and look out for events celebrating women in computing on Ada Lovelace Day later this year on Tuesday 11 October.

Images - Ada The Show

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Lots more events in NI Science Festival which runs until 28 February. Free tickets still available for the Turing Lecture: The Internet of Me in Belfast City Hall on Thursday tea time.

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