The Romantic Computer

The Student Perspectives category collects posts written by current CityLIS students.

Simon Gardner discusses Romanticism, Ada Lovelace, and her influence in the birth of computer programming.

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Having focused on Romanticism in my previous Masters dissertation in English Literature, I was most surprised to find myself faced with Romanticism again, in the form of Ada Lovelace. I had no idea of Ada’s influence on computer programming; albeit given her name, I perhaps should have. Prior to this, I just knew of her as Lord Byron’s only ‘legitimate’ daughter, from his short-lived marriage to Anne Milbanke, and her referencing in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Ada was just another facet of Byron’s life of scandal, with Milbank using such scandal to gain sole custody of their daughter, which caused Byron to then depart England forever. Almost naturally, I wanted to find out whether there were any of the tokens of Romanticism in Ada’s life, and I was not disappointed; and I do not just mean that she was Romantic because she died prematurely at the age of 36, like her father, to add on to John Keats dying aged 25, and Percy Bysshe Shelley at 29.

There is some debate as to whether Milbanke tried to keep her daughter away from the “evil” of her father and poetry, to focus on the “facts” (Toole, 1987). However, Hollings, Martin and Rice (2017) suggest that there is “no evidence” of this. Regardless, the very existence of this debate gives me the impression that there was some truth about this in Ada’s education. Her mother’s supposed efforts were clearly fruitless, however, as Ada coined what she did as ‘poetical science’. Toole (1987) details the conflict between poetry and science, from Plato viewing poetry “with suspicion”, to Byron seeing technology as “dehumanising”. Yet Ada managed to find an equilibrium between the two in how she conducted her work, and in how she viewed the imagination as “not only useful to poets but to scientists as well” (Toole, 1987). That is not to say that there is an absence of imagination in science, but more a case of how it is, or was, perceived.

Toole’s depiction of Milbanke wanting Ada to focus on “the facts” characterises science and maths as concentrating on what can be directly seen, and yet Ada’s methods seemed to orient around making the quantitative qualitative. Ada recognised the need for an algorithm rather than a calculation in the building of the Analytical Engine, whilst the use of cards for this algorithm was founded in the need for symbolism in how the parts were utilised. Aiello (2016) details how her idea of software in programmes applied “operations to symbols, let them be numbers to be used in calculations, words to generate poems, or musical notes to generate music”. This relating of poetry and music to the functions of the engine portrays an image of a computer that is seeking to drawn on metaphor for how it represents data and calculations, like the very machine is a poet itself. Rather than just wanting to focus on “the facts”, the machine creates layers of meaning through coded language, which perfectly exemplifies Ada’s ‘poetical science’ and what I feel obliged to coin the ‘Romantic Computer’.

Despite never being able to fully implement it in her own life, I can’t help but agree with Aiello (2016) that Ada’s combining of poetic metaphor with technology did more than just set up the literary genre of steampunk, but also acted the precursor for Turing’s ideas on Artificial Intelligence and a “thinking machine”. I can only conclude that something cannot truly think, without the imaginative capacity for symbolism.

References:

Aiello, L.C. (2016) ‘The multifaceted impact of Ada Lovelace in the digital age’, Artificial Intelligence235, pp.58-62.

Hollings, C., Martin, U. and Rice, A. (2017) ‘The early mathematical education of Ada Lovelace’, BSHM Bulletin: Journal of the British Society for the History of Mathematics32(3), pp.221-234.

Toole, B.A. (1987) ‘Poetical Science’, The Byron Journal15, pp. 55-65.

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These and other articles published by Simon can be found on his LinkedIn profile.

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