Computing expert and descendant of Ada Lovelace

Posted 18th March 2009 by Honora Smith

honorasmith.jpgThe life of Ada Augusta Lovelace has been a great inspiration for my life. She was my great-great-great-aunt! Ada and Charlotte King, my great-great grandmother, were taken together to maths lectures in Cambridge by Mary Somerville  (at that time women students were not normally admitted). Family tradition has it that they corresponded with each other in mathematics - oh that I could have seen any of those letters!

Back in 1969, in my final year at school, my parents took me to a conference on computing to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Girton College, Cambridge  (at that time, one of the few women’s colleges). Ada’s contribution to computing history was of course featured, and from then on my interest in Ada, computing and maths was sealed.

I went on to read mathematics at Girton, but before this I had the opportunity of spending a gap year working with IBM. My first encounter with computers was immensely enjoyable, and I developed a program for an electrical components factory in Birmingham. Ada was the first to see that computers could be applied in any number of different situations, not just constructed for one particular task. Following in her footsteps, my time at IBM persuaded me that applications of computing were of great interest. My mathematical studies turned to Operational Research (OR), which is the practical outworking of maths in decision making.

Computing, maths and OR have been intertwined throughout my working life. I had OR and computing jobs in civil engineering consultancy, the NHS and a pharmaceutical company. While bringing up a family, I taught maths and IT at a local school run by my church. My family grew up and left home and, to my surprise, I found myself back at university, on an MSc course in OR and then a PhD. I’m now a lecturer in OR and Management Science at the University of Southampton. Again, following Ada’s tradition, I find the applications side of OR the most interesting for research, and I have the pleasure of teaching and supervising students on projects in the NHS and other business applications.

The pledge for Ada Lovelace Day asks us to nominate a wonderful woman role model in technology. I want to name two! Professor Sally Brailsford is an inspiration to the many students who take her courses on management science. She combines technical expertise with wisdom and wit. Dr Christine Currie is a popular young lecturer in OR in the School of Mathematics. She is continuing to energetically teach and pursue goals in research while facing the difficulties and joys of raising a toddler. Bravo to Sally and Christine for their inspiring contributions!

Dr Honora Smith is a lecturer in Operational Research and Management Science at the University of Southampton School of Mathematics. She is a member of the Operational Research Society and the EURO Working Group on Operational Research Applied to Health Services

She is also a member of GetSET Women.


Comments

Ruth Wilson (UKRC moderator):

23rd March 2009

Welcome Honora to the GetSETWomen blog. We are delighted to have descendent of Ada's with us for the period spanning Ada Lovelace Day. The day is the brainchild of Suw Charman-Andersen, and people and organisations all over the world have pledged to blog about women who are great technology role models. You can catch up on the global activity herre: http://ada.pint.org.uk/add.php So we are thrilled to welcome you and to have you nominate Sally and Christine. I'd love to know a bit more about Ada - what combination of qualities enabled her to shine in a period when women had very few opportunities to do so?


Maxine:

24th March 2009

I very much enjoyed reading this fascinating post. I have always admired Ada Lovelace and have had an interest in the history of computing since childhood. My parents met while they were both working on the Mark 1 computer in Manchester in the 1950s, and family legend has it that I was almost born on the computer as my mother carried on working until the last minute. She was an operator in Vivian Bowden's team. The operators had to feed in the paper tape left in little pigeonholes by the people who had written the programmes. Then the output was left in the tray for the programmer to collect later. Of course, many of the operators wrote their own programmes also - I expect they quite often jumped the queue!


Ruth Wilson (UKRC moderator):

24th March 2009

Angela Saini has been promoting this page over at Nature Network http://network.nature.com/groups/women_in_science/forum/topics/4280?page=1 There's a short description of Ada on the Science Museum site (Ada visits the museum in person on 24 March) plus its reminded me to flag up the BBC Radio 4 In Our Time programme about Ada: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/inourtime/inourtime_20080306.shtml Angela's choice of woman-in-technology to blog about on 24 March? Mary Phelps Jacob - inventor of the bra. http://angelasaini.blogspot.com/


Rachel Tobbell:

24th March 2009

I wonder, Honora, why you think it is that the number of women studying IT/Computer Science at university is so low (circa 15% of students are female)? Young women seem to enjoy using computers and the numbers studying maths and science degrees are steadily increasing. It seems odd that we are not seeing a parallel increase in IT. Do you think we need to look at the secondary school curriculum in this area to see if it is inadvertently putting women off this subject?


Honora:

24th March 2009

Ruth, I think that Ada above all displayed the quality of persistence. She also benefitted from the encouragement of several people such as her mother and Mary Somerville. Maxine, yes, it's interesting how computer programming runs in families! When I was a child, my father used to bring home long boxes of punched cards that made up his programs on the computer (note the) at the University of Birmingham. My husband is very much a programmer and IT specialist, and both our sons are now employed in the business of websites, one as a programmer and one a designer. Rachel, interesting point. When I entered programming back in the 70s there were many female programmers and no barriers at all, as far as I could see. I think that the advent of the pc, being a 'computer whiz' can be a very complex task, which may be off-putting to girls in competition with boys who take to it so easily. Females tend to look at computers to do something they need to do, and are nervous of making a mistake. Males seem to be more unafraid of trying thing out and exploring. Of course, there are exceptions, and I know some very able female IT specialists.


Ruth Wilson (UKRC moderator):

24th March 2009

Ada Lovelace interviewed in person by Suw at the science museum, 24 March: http://findingada.com/blog/2009/03/24/an-interview-with-ada-lovelace/


Kaye Heyes:

24th March 2009

Dear Honora, Welcome and Happy Ada Lovelace Day! I'm sure Ada would be amazed at the amount of activity today celebrating her achievements and aiming to increase the visibility of women in technology. Ada Lovelace Day is getting a lot of visibility on Twitter amongst other places: you can search on either Ada Lovelace Day or #ald09 - find results at http://search.twitter.com/search?q=%23ald09 However, having had to overcome many barriers herself, I'm sure Ada would not be surprised that such a day is necessary in order to increase the number of female role models in the media. I'm interested to learn how you overcame one such barrier yourself - namely choosing a job that fitted in with your life whilst you were raising your family, then returning to a career that you loved. How did you go from teaching to studying at university? What advice would you give to other women looking to return to a career that excites them?


Honora:

24th March 2009

Kaye Well done for persisting yourself! It was a surprise to find myself back at university, actually, as my husband had met the professor heading the OR group, and got talking! I loved going back to studies, found my fellow students really encouraging, and would recommend it to anyone. I'd say, have a go and do what you really want to do, you could really surprise yourself!


Dr Betty Alexandra Toole:

24th March 2009

I am thrilled to read about Dr Honora Smith and her accomplishments. As author of Ada, The Enchantress of Numbers I have written the following blog: http://www.well.com/~adatoole/index.htm#ald09 In writing my books and many articles about Ada I was particularly interested in what qualities enabled her to predict accurately today's computer revolution. I mentioned that in the blog. The activity that Dr Smith mentioned about her ancestor was a key activity, going to lectures about Science. From childhood on Ada asked critical questions, eg, what is a rainbow? What is a function? Some of my favorite letters that I transcribed described Ada trying to teach two disinterested young women mathematics. Ada used every skill from trying to create a mission, using color in the diagrams, and relating the concepts to everyday life. A remarkable woman. Dr Betty Alexandra Toole


Angharad V. Setherwood:

24th March 2009

Excellent post, nice to know that the family tradition is being carried on! My post is about Wendy Hall."


Kaye Heyes:

26th March 2009

Ada has made it on to the cover of this week's Computer Weekly magazine http://www.computerweekly.com/blogs/witsend/assets_c/2009/03/ada-cover.html with an article on raising awareness of women's achievements in IT. The Computer Weekly website also has a great photo story of women in IT that they admire at http://www.computerweekly.com/galleries/235373-1/Ada-Lovelace-Day-Barbara-Liskov.htm - very inspirational!


Ruth Wilson (UKRC moderator):

26th March 2009

Betty, your site is fascinating. Very interesting to learn about Ada's approach, balancing the creative with the analytic. And Angharad, thank you for adding another woman from Southampton. The UKRC was proud to name Wendy as one of its first Women of Outstanding Achievement (2006): http://www.ukrc4setwomen.org/html/raise-your-profile/women-of-outstanding-achievement/2006-collection/ The latest six WOOA winners have just been announced, you can find out about them here: http://www.ukrc4setwomen.org/html/raise-your-profile/women-of-outstanding-achievement/2006-collection/ Returning to Ada, here is info about where she lived: http://network.nature.com/hubs/london/blog/2009/03/24/the-scientific-tourist-in-london-3-ada-lovelace-plaque


Daniel Nucinkis:

26th March 2009

This isn´t for the blog, but I saw the blog as Honora is a colleague and then saw that Ruth Wilson is the moderator. Is that the same Ruth Wilson from La Paz? You can get me at dn@soton.ac.uk Please ignore otherwise. Saludos, Dan


Clem Herman:

2nd April 2009

How inspiring to hear about your life Honora and especially about the influence of Ada on your career choice. Role models can be so important for young people when they are making vital decisions about what to study. And great to hear of the encouragement that your parents gave you by taking you to a computer conference at such an impressionable age - parental support is another important factor in influencing career decision making. I was interested in your view that girls are put off IT by the image of the \'computer whizz\' and are nervous of making mistakes. It\'s true that computer games are what attracts a lot of teenage boys to computing and this isn\'t a route that many girls take, but these days girls are likely to be using computers in quite sophisticated ways for soclai networking and communication from a young age. Perhaps it\'s actually the ICT curriculum in schools that puts a lot of young people (boys and girls) off the idea of studying compuer science. Would you agree with this?


Honora Smith:

3rd April 2009

Clem I've just taught a small group, mainly boys, on the ICT GCSE curriculum. It attracted those who enjoyed computer games, but found that the course was rather too serious. In fact it favoured the girls who were happy to work through coursework more methodically. Our elder son studied computing at university: he'd not found the A-level course inspiring, but once at university was able to make the subject his own and carry out an excellent final year project. Happily he'd not been put off by school courses, but I think you may be right in that the school curriculum fails to raise interest in computing science.


Honora Smith:

3rd April 2009

Clem I\\\'ve just taught a small group, mainly boys, on the ICT GCSE curriculum. It attracted those who enjoyed computer games, but found that the course was rather too serious. In fact it favoured the girls who were happy to work through coursework more methodically. Our elder son studied computing at university: he\\\'d not found the A-level course inspiring, but once at university was able to make the subject his own and carry out an excellent final year project. Happily he\\\'d not been put off by school courses, but I think you may be right in that the school curriculum fails to raise interest in computing science.


Honora Smith:

3rd April 2009

Betty Thank you so much for your interesting comments and blog. I was particularly fascinated to read that Ada saw herself as \"expounding & interpreting the Almighty


Julia:

3rd April 2009

Have you ever found it a disadvantage having such a famous relative? Do people when they find out tend to move the conversation to focus on her and her achievements rather than what you are currently doing and the achievements you and your team are making now?


Ruth Wilson (UKRC moderator):

3rd April 2009

Julia - I think Honora is away now till Easter, but I will ask her to respond to you on her return. This particular entry will be in the archive list, as our next blogger goes live on Monday :-) The blogosphere and other communication channels teemed with references to Ada and outstanding women in technology last week. It was fantastic to have Honora's blog linked to in lots of places, including: The GirlyGeekdom blog (a great piece on Florence Nightingale) http://girlygeekdom.blogspot.com/2009/03/ada-lovelace-day-pledge-florence.html Petrona (naming Honora, Debra Hamel, Karen Meek and Steffi Suhr) http://petrona.typepad.com/petrona/2009/03/ada-lovelace-day.html The American Association of University Women blog (Honora plus Hedy Lamarr, Barbara Liskov, Galyn Susman and the amazing Grace Hopper) http://blog-aauw.org/2009/03/24/ada-lovelace-technology-hero/ Carolyne's pages of interest (on Honora, Ada and Ruth Adams, the first woman in Canada to be awarded a patent) http://carolyne-stuff.blogspot.com/2009/03/ada-lovelace-day-ruth-adams.html


Honora:

10th April 2009

Julia I must admit that I\\\'ve rather kept quiet about my connections with Ada! However, I\\\'ve always been pleased to talk about her if the occasion came up - and it\\\'s been a lovely opportunity to do so with this blog!


Ruth Wilson (UKRC moderator):

24th April 2009

Ada Lovelace Day: a round up by the organiser: http://findingada.com/blog/2009/04/24/ada-lovelace-day-round-up/


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