What an odd expectation, both hopeful and heedless of logic, that minds capable of reaching far beyond the horizon of the common imagination should be of common constitution and even emotional topography. We can only ever have the faintest map of another’s internal reality. It is hard enough to reconstitute the mental and emotional landscape of another mind across the abyss of otherness, across the barrier of the umwelt even in the present, but it especially hard across the spacetime divide of centuries and cultures. And yet something of the fragments that survive, if handled attentively and compassionately enough, can contour that remote bygone reality and yield a fuller picture of personhood than our flat hero-myths paint.
Ada Lovelace (December 10, 1815–November 27, 1852), whose uncommon mind catalyzed the age of the algorithm, could reach soaring heights of the imagination and plummet to the blackest depths of loneliness. She was ill a lot: headaches, cholera, multiple severe attacks of measles. She practiced her harp religiously as her mind roamed the most abstract regions of thought. She had moments of elated ideation bordering on the mystical, punctuated by plunges into the inkiest regions of being — syncopations then brushed under the sweeping diagnoses of neurasthenia or hysteria, now most likely identified as bipolar disorder.
Through it all, she understood that creativity was the ability to find “points in common, between subjects having no very apparent connexion, & hence seldom or never brought into juxtaposition” — an understanding that came easily to her, for she herself was a walking juxtaposition.
Two centuries of scholars and admirers have tried to reconstruct this complex person from the fragments she left behind, but none, in my experience, more richly and dimensionally than James Gleick in The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (public library), which remains one of the finest books ever written about how we got to now.
With an eye to the letter Ada’s delinquent father — the poet Lord Byron — wrote to her forbidding mother — the mathematically gifted baroness Annabella Milbanke — inquiring whether the girl he abandoned was imaginative, Gleick writes:
Yes, she was imaginative.
She was a prodigy, clever at mathematics, encouraged by tutors, talented in drawing and music, fantastically inventive and profoundly lonely. When she was twelve, she set about inventing a means of flying. “I am going to begin my paper wings tomorrow,” she wrote to her mother. She hoped “to bring the art of flying to very great perfection. I think of writing a book of Flyology illustrated with plates.” For a while she signed her letters “your very affectionate Carrier Pigeon.” She asked her mother to find a book illustrating bird anatomy, because she was reluctant “to dissect even a bird.”
Ada grew up in cauldron of control, educated at home by her mother, who was determined to eradicate every strain of her father’s dangerous “poetical” inheritance. She handed out paper “tickets” to the girl for excelling at her lessons, then confiscated them when Ada did not meet her expectation. If this system of reward and punishment failed to motivate Ada, she was stuffed into a closet until she vowed to do better.
There was a deeper punishment being administered in her upbringing — not for something Ada did, but for something she was. This intellectual regimen itself closeted a vast and restive part of her, waiting for its powers of expression to be unlatched. She railed at her mother:
You will not concede me philosophical poetry. Invert the order! Will you give me poetical philosophy, poetical science?
She rebelled by claiming it for herself, becoming the first person to marry the mathematical capabilities of computational machines with the poetic possibilities of symbolic logic applied with imagination — the world’s first true computer programmer. She also rebelled by developing a romantic infatuation with her tutor, sneaking around the house and garden with him, and making out to the maximum limits of vestigial propriety until their teenage romance was found out and the tutor was promptly banished.
That spring, dressed in white satin and tulle, she met the King and Queen at her official court debut. But the real milestone came a month later, when she met a figure far more important to the history of the future: Charles Babbage — brilliant and bushy-browed, curmudgeonly and charming, described by Harper’s Monthly as “better known to readers of English newspapers as the persistent opponent of street music.” Gleick writes:
With her mother, she went to see what Lady Byron called his “thinking machine,” the portion of the Difference Engine in his salon. Babbage saw a sparkling, self-possessed young woman with porcelain features and a notorious name, who managed to reveal that she knew more mathematics than most men graduating from university. She saw an imposing forty-one-year-old, authoritative eyebrows anchoring his strong-boned face, who possessed wit and charm and did not wear these qualities lightly. He seemed a kind of visionary—just what she was seeking. She admired the machine, too. An onlooker reported: “While other visitors gazed at the working of this beautiful instrument with the sort of expression, and I dare say the sort of feeling, that some savages are said to have shown on first seeing a looking-glass or hearing a gun, Miss Byron, young as she was, understood its working, and saw the great beauty of the invention.” Her feeling for the beauty and abstractions of mathematics, fed only in morsels from her succession of tutors, was overflowing. It had no outlet. A woman could not attend university in England, nor join a scientific society (with two exceptions: the botanical and horticultural).
Enraptured by the possibilities that lay hidden in this new generation of machines, Ada was beginning to enjoy her unusual mind in a new way:
I find that my plans & ideas keep gaining in clearness, & assuming more of the crystalline & less & less of the nebulous form.
At times, in the positive extremes of her emotional polarity, her confidence crested into grandiosity, both terrible and touching:
I do not believe that my father was (or ever could have been) such a Poet as I shall be an Analyst; (& Metaphysician); for with me the two go together indissolubly.
Like Mary Shelley, she had waking dreams in which ideas formed in her mind by their own accord — ideas beyond anything she had been taught, beyond anything teachable. She had the metacognitive awareness that her cognition worked in unusual ways and the precocious intuition to recognize in Babbage a kindred mind on which she could hone her own. With extraordinary self-awareness of both her powers and her limits — which might be the highest achievement of maturity — she beseeched him to take her on as a pupil, not realizing she was about to become the magnifying lens through which his own vision would bend past the horizon of possibility he had envisioned for it. She wrote to him:
Bearing me in mind… I mean my mathematical interests… is the greatest favour any one can do me. — Perhaps, none of us can estimate how great…. I am by nature a bit of a philosopher, & a very great speculator, — so that I look on through a very immeasurable vista, and though I see nothing but vague & cloudy uncertainty in the foreground of our being, yet I fancy I discern a very bright light a good way further on, and this makes me care much less about the cloudiness & indistinctness which is near. — Am I too imaginative for you? I think not.
This question of the imagination — the question of the father she never met but whose portrait she kept under green drapery in her study — both thrilled and troubled her. She felt she had to keep her “metaphysical head in order,” but she also knew there was a different order of reality yet to be discovered. Mathematics was her supreme plaything of the imagination and the closest thing she knew to magic:
I am often reminded of certain sprites & fairies one reads of, who are at one’s elbows in one shape now, & the next minute in a form most dissimilar; and uncommonly deceptive, troublesome & tantalizing are the mathematical sprites & fairies sometimes.
She longed for the precision of mathematics in the nebula of the imagination. Two centuries before Bob Dylan observed that “we’re all wind and dust anyway [and] we don’t have any proof that we are even sitting here,” she probed the edges of reality:
We talk much of Imagination. We talk of the Imagination of Poets, the Imagination of Artists &c; I am inclined to think that in general we don’t know very exactly what we are talking about… It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science. It is that which feels & discovers what is, the real which we see not, which exists not for our senses. Those who have learned to walk on the threshold of the unknown worlds… may then with the fair white wings of Imagination hope to soar further into the unexplored amidst which we live.
For her, the imagination was not only a means of escaping from — from the loneliness, the intense dark moods, the limits of her time and place — but an escape toward something greater, something truer than what the eye could see and the common mind could hold. She recognized that she had “a peculiar way of learning“; allowing the cultural luxury of an ahistorical term, she recognized her own neurodivergence. There is a Blakean quality, a Joan of Arc spirit, in the self-declaration she sent to her mother shortly before her twenty-seventh birthday — the closest thing Ada Lovelace ever composed to a personal manifesto:
I must tell you what my opinion of my own mind and powers is exactly — the result of a most accurate study of myself with a view to my future plans during many months. I believe myself to possess a most singular combination of qualities exactly fitted to make me pre-eminently a discoverer of the hidden realities of nature. You will not mistake this assertion either for a wild enthusiasm or for the result of any disposition to self-exaltation. On the contrary, the belief has been forced upon me, and most slow have I been to admit it even. I will mention the three remarkable faculties in me, which united ought (all in good time) to make me see anything that a being not actually dead can see and know (for it is what we are pleased to call death that will really reveal things to us).
Firstly: owing to some peculiarity in my nervous system, I have perceptions of some things, which no one else has — or at least very few, if any. This faculty may be designated in me as a singular tact, or some might say an intuitive perception of hidden things — that is of things hidden from eyes, ears, and the ordinary senses… This alone would advantage me little, in the discovery line, but there is, secondly, my immense reasoning faculties. Thirdly: my concentrative faculty, by which I mean the power not only of throwing my whole energy and existence into whatever I choose, but also bringing to bear on any one subject or idea a vast apparatus from all sorts of apparently irrelevant and extraneous sources. I can throw rays from every quarter of the universe into one vast focus.
Now these three powers (I cannot resist the wickedness of calling them my discovering or scientific Trinity) are a vast apparatus put into my power by Providence; and it rests with me by a proper course during the next twenty years to make the engine what I please. But haste, or a restless ambition, would quite ruin the whole.
Meantime my course is so clear and obvious that it is delightful to think how straight it is. And yet what a mountain I have to climb! It is enough to frighten anyone who had not all that most insatiable and restless energy, which from my babyhood has been the plague of your life and my own.
That year, Babbage set out to elaborate on his Difference Engine in the more complex Analytical Engine and their collaboration began in earnest. The rest, as we know, is history.
But in a tragic testament to the uncomfortable fact that even the furthest seers can’t fully bend their gaze past the horizon of their culture’s given, Ada Lovelace was captive to the Cartesian heritage of her epoch — she saw her formidable mind as an entity separate from her ailing body, existing on a plane beyond the atomic reality of her being. And who could fault her — the very notion of entropy, which brought mathematics to mortality, was still a quarter century away.
High on the thrill of solving the problem of generating Bernoulli numbers — the problem at the crux of furnishing the variables that would become the Analytical Engine’s units of information — she wrote to Babbage:
That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal; as time will show; (if only my breathing & some other et-ceteras do not make too rapid a progress towards instead of from mortality).
Before ten years are over, the Devil’s in it if I have not sucked out some of the life-blood from the mysteries of this universe, in a way that no purely mortal lips or brains could do.
No one knows what almost awful energy & power lie yet undevelopped in that wiry little system of mine.
With astonishing self-awareness of just how slender the line between genius and madness can be, she added:
I say awful, because you may imagine what it might be under certain circumstances.
Two weeks before her thirty-seventh birthday, the entropic brutality of uterine cancer dismantled the matter that made Ada’s mind, leaving behind the world’s first computer program and the long comet-tail of this blazing prophet of the poetry of computation.
Complement with the story of how the bit was born another century later, also from The Information, then revisit artist Sydney Padua’s perennially impressive graphic novel about Ada’s collaboration with Babbage.