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Ada and I

Ada Lovelace 1838

A wonderful article from Tim Kastelle: “Ten Great Women to Write About for Ada Lovelace Day” has gotten me started on reminiscences.

I first met Ada Lovelace sometime in the ’70′s. I was in my early 20′s and had begun a frantic scramble to escape the unwelcome recognition that I was not who I was supposed to be. I was growing older and older– impossibly old. I had passed 21 and was hurtling toward 25. The list of the things I had not done was growing longer and longer — and still I had accomplished nothing. I had gone through one major after another — Political Science, Sociology, Anthropology, Russian, History– without being able to settle on any. I had married, but my husband was not yet ready to agree to the eternal fall-back career for a woman– having children. At the time I met Ada I had embarked on the most improbable of my academic attempts: I was enrolled in Electrical Engineering at Northwestern University.

I came to both the university and the subject in a roundabout way. I had met my husband when I was 17 while was living with a group of older friends- students at Michigan State in East Lansing, Michigan. He was just finishing his Bachelor’s in Physics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. When he was admitted to grad school at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, I applied at Illinois Wesleyan, about an hour’s drive, in Bloomington. The following year we both applied to the Chicago Circle Branch of the University of Illinois so that we could finally be together in the same city.

In Champaign my husband had begun to work on a sort of early precursor of the internet: the Plato project. It arrived at the Chicago Campus at the same time we did. Plato was a dream wrapped up in an orange plasma bow for someone like me: it was filled to the gills with courses on every possible subject, all presented in fascinating ways. There was an electronic fruit fly laboratory where you could ‘breed’ flies with various characteristics and see the results in the offspring. There was a pattern recognition program where you could train yourself to recognize dot-matrix moths on electronic ‘trees’. There was a world population map where you could simulate various kinds of population changes- from an increase in the birthrate to a catastrophic plague- and see how quickly populations in various places would bounce back. There was a German language learning program which gradually substituted German words into a well-known English language story, testing you on vocabulary at each iteration until imperceptibly you found yourself reading the text entirely in German. And, of course, there were games. One in which you played the commander of a space ship showed you a display panel and gave you a crude look out into a galaxy of stars. And I can remember once pulling an all-nighter– not cramming for an exam but wandering through the electronic mazes of a dungeons and dragons game.

My husband soon found that he was having trouble focusing on physics with such a fascinating new toy to do with as he willed. Gradually the heretical thought began to form that he might not get a Ph.D. after all. For him it was a painful transition: the relinquishing of a long-standing focus. For me, on the other hand, shedding my Russian literature skin and diving into computers was as natural as breathing. The pain came later, as I realized that once again I had disappointed, reinforcing my parents’ growing skepticism about my ability to stick to anything for long enough to experience any success. I was still young enough, however, that, just as each time before, I managed to convince myself that this was it. I had finally found my subject. This time it would be different.

I had taken a Fortran course my first quarter at UICC running punch cards through the machine and going back into the computer room with its cubby holes for the printouts. Now I learned Tutor, the language developed for Plato, and started to write programs. But while my husband burrowed ever deeper into his new subject, becoming expert in the Unix systems being developed to run the project, I was soon restless again. The idea of programming attracted me. The finished applications enchanted me. But the actual work of writing and debugging programs drove me batty. I still wanted to do something connected with computers though. Moving from software to hardware seemed like a logical transition at the time.

In retrospect I can hardly imagine a subject less suited to me. And it was exactly that, I think, that was the source of its true attraction. I began to work on a voluntary basis in the Plato lab, making simple repairs involving nothing more than replacing parts one after another, until the defective piece was found by trial and error. To my hurt surprise this was not enough to land me a paying job. I realized that I needed real credentials and my smarting ego decided that I would get a degree that no one could question- in electrical engineering.

There was just one problem with this plan: I had no background in math and science whatsoever and in my teenage years had developed a formidable math block to boot. For once I found myself stubborn, however. I located some self-paced basic math books and managed to fill some of the gaping holes in my math background. Then I was lucky enough to get an excellent Trigonometry teacher as my first professor. From there I moved on to Calculus courses. It was about then that I heard that Northwestern was trying to increase enrollment of women in its engineering courses and was offering a special enrollment program. I wrote an essay about overcoming my math block and was admitted, ironically, on the strength of my writing ability.

Throughout this time we were becoming more and more immersed in this growing new world of computers, my husband directly, I more peripherally. Though I was soon struggling with physics and engineering classes I found time to dip into Donald Knuth’s then two-volume work, The Art of Computer Programming. And it was there that I first met Ada. It was a single quote at the start of a chapter. I can neither remember nor locate that quote, but in essence she made the extraordinary leap of intuition that a machine that didn’t even exist except on paper- Babbage’s Analytical Engine- could as easily use symbols as numbers, allowing machine instructions to be written as words. When Knuth came to Chicago to deliver a lecture I stopped him afterward and asked if he knew where I could find more information on her. He didn’t.

I was fascinated, but had hit a brick wall. There were no biographies of Ada Lovelace and I had no other sources to turn to for information. I stopped looking but never forgot her.

After several years struggle I admitted I was not cut out to be an engineer and dropped out of school again. Another skin shed, another proof added to the pudding of disappointment. Then we moved to Los Angeles, where my husband had gotten a job at the Rand Corporation.

As I passed the quarter century mark it began to dawn on me that perhaps I had been seeing things the wrong way around. Perhaps it wasn’t so much a problem of not being who I was supposed to be – but of not being who I was supposed to be. I began to write again, something I had done since early childhood but had abandoned as impractical for an ‘adult’. Feeling a desperate need to prove myself a ‘real’ writer I focused on the area I thought most likely to get me published- writing one of the then highly popular ‘Regency Romances’. It was a genre I knew well. I was a fanatic reader of historical novels of all sorts, but especially those set in the Regency period of England.

As I was working on the novel, something else was happening: gradually, interest was developing in Ada Lovelace. The Department of Defense named a programming language after her. A biography about her appeared. Suddenly there was information on her life available, but it seemed rather unsatisfactory. The biography of her was written by a Byron scholar and nothing that had come out thus far seemed to indicate any real appreciation for her accomplishments. I wondered if it was too late for me to write about her- and if I did whether my own math background would be sufficient for me to follow what she’d done.

I finished the novel and began to shop it around to agents. One, who was transitioning from being a film script agent to novels, was enthusiastic about my idea for a novel on Ada Lovelace. Throw in some sex, he said. Was she having an affair with Babbage? And there was always the psychological angle. A woman mathematician- dying of uterine cancer- clearly she was suppressing her own femininity. He thought he could get me an advance of $50,000– if I would follow his advice. I thanked him and found another agent.

The manuscript never was published. All I – and my hard-working agent- had to show for it was a number of nice notes thanking me for my submission but informing me that they were dropping their line of Regency Romances.

Writing the novel had been a long, hard slog, but somewhere towards the end of it a story of a completely different sort began to take form. I found myself waking in the middle of the night with the voices of the two protagonists in my head. It felt utterly different than all my previous writing. It felt, almost, as if they were somehow writing my life instead of I theirs. Perhaps they were. Certainly my path had veered radically away from anything I had previously planned or thought of. In researching the play, or script– I was not sure what it was- I had come across the work of Tom Stoppard which, in turn, led me into the world of Czech literature and film. I began working for the release of writers and artists imprisoned by the Communist regime, in particular an obscure playwright by the name of Vaclav Havel. Coincidence and serendipity piled on one another. By 1982 I had left my husband and started into uncharted territory.

As radically as my life has veered away from that time, taking me into a new culture, a new language, a new marriage, I still think of Ada Lovelace often. Beneath the skin of time and circumstances I think- I feel- that we were fighting the same, puzzled fight, trying to discover how to fit an ‘I’ into the ‘supposed to be’.

5 comments to Ada and I

  • [...] is the original:  Ada and I By admin | category: NORTHWESTERN University | tags: academic-attempts, NORTHWESTERN [...]

  • britta

    great post Sarah! They all are, but this is really special.

  • I found this blog on social bookmarking site. I liked it and gave you a fave! By the way I also loved your blog theme! Did you create it yourself or can I download it from somehwere?

  • Thanks for the mention Sarah – I’m honored to show up in such a beautiful post!

  • Riko

    “The pain came later, as I realized that once again I had disappointed, reinforcing my parents’ growing skepticism about my ability to stick to anything for long enough to experience any success. I was still young enough, however, that, just as each time before, I managed to convince myself that this was it. I had finally found my subject. This time it would be different.”

    You don’t know how glad I am that someone else is in this boat!

    Did you try again to get your manuscript published? Working in the library I can attest to the popularity of the genre right now.

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