Enter the maze

Geek gurl parties in the 1830's

by Jane Waite, Queen Mary University of London

Fan: copyright www.istockphoto.com 68284513

In the 21st century, you might subscribe to a You-tube channel like the Geek Gurl Diaries, and watch videos to learn how to program a BBC micro:bit, but in 1830 where could you hang out and talk tech? Swanky parties that's where!

In the mid 1800's, if you moved in the right circles you might get an invite to one of Charles Babbage's soirees, fancy food, dancing, a duke or two and the Difference Engine. Babbage invented the first automatic calculator, a number cruncher that used cogs, wheels and no electricity. If you were lucky he might have shown you his shiny brass test model that whirred and pinged, or reveal his complex hand written design for his newest invention, an Analytical Engine, a mechanical computer.

Ada Lovelace, met Babbage at one such party and talked tech. She had studied maths rather than the typical girl subjects of the time as her mother was worried she would turn out to be wild, like her esteemed father Lord Byron. Yes, the 'mad, bad and dangerous to know' Romantic Poet!

Sophia De Morgan, the wife of one of Ada’s tutor’s, wrote of Ada when she saw one of Babbage’s machines “ ... young as she was, understood its working, and saw the great beauty of the invention.”

Many of the party goers would not have had a clue about Babbage's' new fangled contraptions, but Ada did. At only 18 she got on the program... so to speak... becoming a Victorian 'research assistant' helping on several of Babbage's projects. She translated engineering articles from French, added her own notes, and published an algorithm to work out a sequence of numbers called the Bernoulli numbers for the Analytical Engine. Some say she was the first ever programmer.

Ada saw that the Analytical Engine was more than Babbage had intended, it was not just for maths. She suggested that it might create music and wrote that the Engine 'weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.'

Ada, sure was ahead of her time: a Victorian Geek Gurl.