“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.”
It is a strange expectation that people can reach far beyond what the common imagination allows. This belief, while both optimistic and ignorant of logic, should not be based on common constitutions or emotional topographies. We can only ever have the faintest map of another’s internal reality. It can be difficult to reconstruct the mental and emotional landscapes of another person across the ocean of otherness, the barrier of time, and even the current. This is especially true when it comes to the distance between spacetime and centuries. But if you are patient and kind enough with the pieces that remain, they can help to reconstruct a distant bygone reality. They will also give a more complete picture of your personhood than what our hero-myths portray.
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. Headaches, cholera and multiple measles attacks made her sick a lot. As her mind wandered to the abstractest regions of thinking, she practiced her Harp faithfully. 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.
There have been two centuries of admirers and scholars trying to reconstruct the complex woman from her fragments. But none has done it more beautifully and dimensionally, according to my experience, than James Gleick, author of The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood, which is still one of the most important books on how we got here.
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:
She was indeed imaginative.
Her genius in mathematics was encouraged and supported by tutors. She was also gifted at drawing and music and was extremely creative and lonely. At twelve years of age, she began to invent a way for her to fly. “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. It is my dream to write a book about. 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. Ada was then stuffed in a closet, until she resolved to be better.
There was a deeper punishment being administered in her upbringing — not for something Ada did, but for something she was. The intellectual punishment closed off a large and restive portion of her mind, waiting to let loose its expressive powers. Her mother was the cause of her rage.
I will not accept philosophical poetry. Reverse the order You can invert the order!
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. In her rebellion, she also sneaked around her tutor’s house and gardens with him and made out until the limits of vestigial propriety were exceeded. The tutor was quickly expelled.
She was dressed in white satin, tulle and other formal attire that spring when she made 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 witnessed a young, confident woman, with porcelain features, and an unremarkable name. She managed to show Babbage that she was more proficient in mathematics than many men who graduate from university. He was a strong, forty-one year-old man with sharp eyebrows. His face is anchored by his powerful, strong-boned features. He seemed a kind of visionary—just what she was seeking. The machine was also admired by her. 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. The feeling had no outlet. It was illegal for a woman to attend an English university or join any scientific society.
Ada found herself captivated by the new possibilities offered by this machine generation and was determined to discover a way to live with her extraordinary mind.
I find that my plans & ideas keep gaining in clearness, & assuming more of the Crystalline & less & less of the nebulous form.
Sometimes, when she was at the extremes of her emotions, her confidence reached a point where it became incredibly grandiose, which is both tragic and touching.
My father is not, or could ever have been, such an individual. PoetAs You willAn 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. Her metacognitive awareness of how her cognition works was extraordinary and her precocious intuition that Babbage had a similar mind to which she could improve hers. 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. To him she wrote:
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? No, not at all.
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. She considered mathematics her most powerful tool of imagination, and it was the closest she could get 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 long for precision in mathematics, even in the nebulae of 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 moreThe power 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 usIt is the worlds of Science. It is that which feels & discovers what is, the RealWhich we do not see. ExistsNot for our Sensibilities. 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.
The imagination wasn’t just a way to escape for her. From — from the loneliness, the intense dark moods, the limits of her time and place — but an escape towardThere was something more, something deeper than that which the eye can see. She recognized that she had “a peculiar WegOf 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:
My dearest mama,
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. My unique combination of characteristics makes me special. pre-eminentlyA discoverer of the hidden realitiesThe beauty of nature. This assertion is not a result of self-exaltation or wild enthusiasm. It is a fact that I have been forced into this belief, though it has taken me a while to even admit it. Three remarkable faculties within me are what I’ll mention. They should all work together to see any thing that an actual dead being can see or know. It is death, as we enjoy calling it, that really will reveal the truth.
First: Because of a peculiarity in the nervous system I have, I am unable to communicate with my brain. Perceptions of some things, which no one else has — or at least very few, if any. You might call this a unique tact or an ability. Intutive perception of hidden things — that is of things hidden from eyes, ears, and the ordinary senses… This All by itselfIt would be of little benefit to me in the discovery area, but I have immense reasoning faculties. The third is my concentrative ability, which means I have the capacity to not only put my whole life into whatever topic I choose but also pull together a huge array of sources that seem irrelevant or extraneous in order to focus on one idea. My ability to throw RaysFrom every corner of the universe into One vast focus.
These three power (that I cannot resist calling my wickedness) are now mine FindingOder scientificTrinity) Are a large apparatus placed in my power by Providence. It rests with you by following a correct course over the next twenty-years to make the engine do what I wish. The whole thing could be destroyed by haste or an unfulfilled ambition.
And yet, my path is so simple and clear that I find it delightful to consider how straight it is. Yet, WhatA mountain that I must climb! That is enough energy to scare off anyone not possessed the same insatiable spirit that I had from birth.
Babbage began to work on the Analytical Engine, which was more complicated than his Difference Engine. Their collaboration started in earnest. We all know the rest.
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:
This BrainMy work is more than just a book. Mortal; as time will show; (if only my breathing & some other et-ceteras do not make too rapid a progress towardsInstead 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 wiryVery little mine.
She shared her astonishing awareness of how thin the line can be between genius and madness with a remarkable self-awareness.
Ich sage TerribleBecause you might imagine it. MightBe under specific 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.
Giving = Being Loving
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