The web site of Austin-based writer Eileen McGinnis.


“My Dear Mrs. Somerville”: Ada Lovelace on Motherhood + Math

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) has been many things to many people. World’s first computer programmer. Most overrated figure in computing. Feminist icon. Literary muse. Fashion muse. Gaming avatar. Etc.

But she was also mother to three children. And she had them in pretty rapid succession – Byron (b. 1836), Anne (b. 1837, and later a star in her own right), and Ralph (b. 1839).

While working intensively on her famous notes about the Analytical Engine, she referred to them as her “first-born” (anticipating many similar scientific publications to follow, “a large family of brothers and sisters”). But she also had three biological children under age 8.

So, In honor of Ada Lovelace Day, a post about Lovelace, motherhood, and the creative impulse.

Ada struggled with that perennial push-pull between the demands of her three children and the demands of her scientific ambition – despite all of her supports that wealth and aristocratic privilege provided.

Her biographer Betty Toole notes that Ada rather despaired, in those early years, of how women’s intellectual contribution could be compatible with the demands of child-producing and rearing.

And, in this letter from 1840 (when she was in the thick of it with two young kids and a baby), Lovelace admits to her distaste, at times, for the job:

I have been thinking much of my qualities as a Mama or Guardian of children, & I have come decisively to this conclusion: I am admirable as an organizer, director of others, superintendent. But practically in details, the less I have habitually to do with children the better both for them & me… How many, many moments there are, when their presence is most irritating & intolerable to me, & when a third person given up to them, makes it quite a different thing...

I love the frankness of her admission here. I’ve certainly shared that sense of claustrophobia while solo parenting a small child, and the relief that comes with having another adult’s company, even if for an hour.

A few years later, she would write to her cousin Robert Noel, asking for his help finding a tutor for her three children. She explains that her intellectual pursuits required a great deal of her attention. In the letter, Lovelace claims an identity as a scientist and writer, describing herself as now “a completely professional person.”

This struggle, tho’, is not incompatible with the affectionate and closely observed details of her children’s lives that she recorded, from Byron’s “experimental disposition” to Anne’s sharp but “volatile mind,” to Ralph’s imperious nature.

What I wanted to end with today, though, is a series of letters between Lovelace and Mary Somerville, the noted physicist and mathematician hailed on her obituary as the “queen of nineteenth-century science.”

The older Somerville was also Ada’s mentor, tutor, and scientific chaperone about town before her marriage to William King.

Their correspondence ranges widely in subject matter (often within the same letter).  Ada’s remarks about the weaning of her first child Byron and speculation about the sex of her second, are interspersed with requests for books and study materials, such as Newton’s “Statement of Reasons” or a set of geometrical models.

They discuss upcoming marriage of Mary’s son alongside queries about contemporary scientific debates. In one, Ada asks, “What say you to Mossette’s theory of electrical universal attraction, on which Faraday has been lecturing?”

As a scholar and a new mother, I find this easy rapport with an older female mentor and role model – this ability to integrate roles as parents and intellectuals – both inspiring and rare.

To discover these frank conversations on topics maternal and scientific, an acknowledgment of both the real demands on women’s bodies alongside the unflagging curiosity of their minds, delighted me – and also left me a bit envious.

Mary’s role in Ada’s life came to an end once the former left for Italy in 1838. But, in their letters, we see a glimpse, however fleeting, of a more holistic portrait of the artist-as-parent and the parent-as-artist.

Ada once wrote to the chemist Andrew Crosse, “There is too much tendency to making separate and independent bundles of both the physical and the moral facts of the universe.” She was referring to life on the grandest of scales, to the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate realms of knowledge.

But I think her observation can be applied to the facets of an individual life as well. Our roles as parents and creators don’t always or even often neatly complement each other, but that doesn’t mean that they have no relationship or causality.

For instance, the restlessness that Ada felt after those early years of parenting, of living with her conventional role as a wife and mother, also clarified and even intensified her ambitions. It was what drove her to seek out a new math tutor, to return with renewed passion to her studies, and to persuade Babbage to collaborate on the notes about his proto-computer.

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