Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Ada Lovelace Day

It's March 24th, and that means it's Ada Lovelace Day - the day when bloggers all over the world pay homage to the achievements of women in the field of technology and science. If you're reading this post, then you have Ada Lovelace to thank for it: she wrote the first computer programme, for Charles Babbage's Difference Engine, back in 1843 (why don't we still call computers 'Difference Engines' by the way? In fact why don't we call all pieces of computational technology 'Difference Engines'? I'm gonna start that. Tomorrow morning I will, as is my habit, switch on my Lap Difference Engine to catch up with my blogs, then take my PDE [Portable Difference Engine] to work with me. There I shall labour at a Desktop Difference Engine for about eight hours, before coming home to do some serious writing on the LDE, perhaps followed by a session playing 'Sporting Activities' on my Nintendo Leisure Difference Engine. But I digress.)

Ada Lovelace wrote the first computer programme, and the amazing thing is that she did it as frickin' footnote. She appended notes to a translation of Luigi Menabrea's memoir about Babbage's Awesome Steampunk Name Engine which explained a way the engine could be used to calculate Bernoulli Numbers. The world's first ever computer programme, an item of world-changing importance, the first stirrings of a new world yearning to be born - and she introduced it by going 'oh, by the way, you could use the machine to do this...'

Women in Ada Lovelace's time lived in the footnotes. They couldn't vote. They weren't considered fully paid-up members of society. They didn't get the same education as men, they didn't have the same freedom to act as men, their access to many professions and positions was barred. And so for a long time Ada  Lovelace didn't get her due. The Difference Engine was Babbage's invention and it was Babbage who got the credit. The fact that the first programme which could have ran on the engine was written by a woman went unremarked.

These days, women have advanced by leaps and bounds in society, but there are still women who live in the footnotes, whose incredible contribution to the world around is is not generally remarked on  by mainstream culture. Here's an example: you're reading this on a computer. I'll be honest here: for all I know computers work by magic. But as far as I can work it out, the agents of that magic are billions of tiny transistors which buzz busily away beneath the sleek, black (or, if you're one of those Mac wankers, creamy white) surface of your console, all carrying out the innumerable near-magical functions which allow me to type these words and upload them to the net to read them. This is all computers are, really: extremely complicated Difference Engines. They can carry out many more functions than Babbage's device, but it's the same basic principle.

As our ability to miniaturise computer technology improves, we can put billions of transistors into these funny little boxes. It wasn't always thus. Gather round, children, and imagine a time when the integrated circuits that make up a computer were thought astonishingly sophisticated if they could hold as many as ten transistors. Then, people got smarter, and figured out a way of including, ooh, hundreds of transistors. Hundreds. Imagine what you could do with that.

What was needed, to get from the ten-diode world of then to the billion-transistor world of now, was a way of getting thousands of transistor-based circuits onto a single chip. This method was Very Large Scale Integration, or VSLI. VSLI was pioneered by Carver Mead and Lynn Conway, and is often referred to as the Mead-Conway Revolution because it represented a massive leap in the amount of functions which could be carried out on the computing equipment of the time. The textbook 'Introduction to VSLI Design', co-authored by Mead and Conway, was one of the standard textbooks on chip design and influenced a generation of computer programmers. The computer on which you're reading this is able to carry out its amazing array of functions because of the advances in chip design pioneered by Mead and Conway. We've came a long way since then, just as we've came a long way since Babbage's engine, but without that intermediate period when it was necessary to make the leap from hundreds to thousands, we wouldn't have billions of diodes-worth of power at our feverishly-typing fingers.

There's another reason why Lynn Conway is an important figure, of course, and it's why I haven't yet included a link to her biography until now.

Basically, the platform on which you're reading this blog exists because of the work of a trans woman. Not only did Lynn Conway revolutionise computer technology, she was also a pioneer in terms of gender identity, transitioning during a time when it was even harder for trans people to be accepted than it is today. Trans women are still horribly marginalised by  mainstream society, and suffer consequences from lower wages, status inconsistency, and abuse to having a much greater risk of being murdered than people in the general population. These days, it's trans people who live in the footnotes, and whose contribution, even if it's awesome and game-changing, is overlooked by the mainstream. And, for that reason, Lynn Conway is my high-tech heroine for Ada Lovelace Day this year.


  1. Mac wanker? Is this some new kind of fetish? How exactly do you wank a Mac? Or are you just being a bigot?

  2. Aha, you may call me a bigot but consider this: what COLOUR is a Mac, eh? White. So all these spods wandering 'round telling you Macs are the shit? They're actually subliminally saying white is best. WHITE IS BEST. They're frickin' Nazis, man, and Steve Jobs is their technoid Neo-Hitler. Calling 'em 'wankers' is letting them off lightly. The wankers.