Stephen Wolfram Reclaims Ada Lovelace: We Read So You Don’t Have To


If you care about where technology is going, you pay attention to Steven Wolfram. He created the technical computing language Mathematica, he’s a savvy and idiosyncratic business leader, and he does things like take a decade to invent a new kind of science. What’s perhaps most impressive about Wolfram is that even though he’s accomplished so much, he’s still endlessly curious. In particular, he finds time to write extended profiles of the people who have inspired him, and those profiles are filled with wonder and an astonishing amount of new research.

Next month Wolfram will publish Idea Makers: Personal Perspectives on the Lives & Ideas of Some Notable People, a collection of essays looking at what made both historical figures and people he has worked with (the latter group includes Richard Feynmann and Steve Jobs) so important and unexpected. Many of these celebrations have been published already, on Wolfram’s blog and on Medium, and one in particular is a must-read that will whet your appetite for the full book.

Ada Lovelace at 20

Augusta Ada King-Noel, countess of Lovelace, better known as Ada Lovelace, has been considered by some a hero and by others a minor but significant figure in the earliest days of mechanical pre-computing computing. She worked on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine in the 19th century and her notes on the Engine are considered the first algorithms written for a computer to execute, making her the first computer programmer. There’s been considerable controversy over the extent of her contribution to Babbage’s project.

In Untangling the Tale of Ada Lovelace, Wolfram proceeds as a scientist would, testing hypotheses, checking to see whether what actually happened jives with what’s been reported for centuries. He marvels at telling details (example Babbage once wrote a diatribe against the Royal Society, of which he was a member, called Reflections on the Decline of Science in England) and expertly places a story of scientific advances in a variety of contexts that make it real. He goes deep on everything from money troubles to dueling claims of credit to how the proposed device was marketed: all extremely modern matters. And he considers what might have happened had Lovelace not died young (he speculates she could have become a “Steve Jobs-like figure”). Wolfram captures the contours of a fascinating, often misreported scientific friendship (she really was intimately involved in the work) and he connects the 19th-century tale to today’s technology business.

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