In 1843, Ada Lovelace wrote a book. Ostensibly it was a translation of some notes of a lecture by Charles Babbage. The Italian author, whose notes needed to be translated, were focused on the mathematical capabilities of Babbage’s machine.
Lovelace – and only Lovelace – grasped the power of Babbage’s machine to change society ; to introduce an Information Age. The world in which we now live – in the first half of the twenty first century – was imagined back in 1843.
Victorian society did not get to hear Lovelace’s arguments for a changed society, though. Her gender was the wrong one to be taken seriously in Victorian Britain. She was in the right place, at the right time, with the right ideas to change society, but her gender left her without the financial or cultural resources to make these ideas known.
The vacuum tube was invented in 1875 by accident , but had Lovelace’s vision for a mechanical computer been developed, it is plausible that it would have been invented earlier. Even if it only came in 1875, its potential as a way to store zeroes and ones would have been immediately obvious to people in a world of mechanical computers used in the way Lovelace envisioned.
Alan Turing kickstarted the computer revolution by reinventing Ada’s ideas and then, once he had, reading her papers to learn from her. Turing’s ‘Bomb’ computer, and the ‘Colossus’ computer that was built using vacuum tubes, building on Turing’s invention, were built in the mid-1940s. The rapid development of technology since then can be attributed to that research.
It is fascinating to imagine what the world would have been like had mechanical computers been built by the British Empire and used to change society. The industrial revolution and the information revolution would have been much closer to each other.
But that’s not the point of this post. Let us look at the two humans behind these developments: Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing.
Ada Lovelace died young, but even in her short life, her ideas should have been revolutionary. The sexism of Victorian society failed her, and failed us all. She did not have access to her own money, being female, and was unable to lobby Parliament or to other sources of funding, because of her gender.
Alan Turing, despite his amazing contribution to the war effort, was chemically castrated as a ‘treatment’ for his sexual orientation. He killed himself in 1954 at the age of 41, as a direct result of the homophobia of British society at that time. In his short life, he contributed to the fields of computer science, mathematics, and biology. He was the first to identify, for example, that zebra stripes develop using mathematical principles. The British Government formally apologized in 2009 and in 2017 passed a law to pardon men historically convicted of ‘indecency’.
The United Kingdom has a proud history in many respects. Like many modern nations it has equality protections, legal gay marriage, no death penalty, and many other compassionate and morally justifiable laws. But the lives of Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing must not be forgotten. The failure of societies in the past, and today, to allow people to live their best lives has deprived us all.
How many African American geniuses have been wasted since the abolition of slavery in the United States? How many geniuses remain wasted in ghettos and even jails across the United States?
If only one Ada Lovelace or Alan Turing has been wasted, then we may have set ourselves back another one hundred years. We might have had computers that we recognize by the turn of the twentieth century.
Every life is a golden opportunity, and it does not have to be physically extinguished for its potential to be lost.