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Why The Life Story of Ada Lovelace Needs To Be Made Into A Film
28th October 2014
Lady Ada Lovelace
We imagine you have heard of Lady Ada Lovelace, known historically as the person who wrote the world's first computer program. You may even know that she was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron, and that she is an inspiration to women in STEM the world over. But do you know the whole story? The story we think is itching to be told, and that should be told - in glorious technicolour!
At ConquerMaths our primary passions are obviously maths and education, but like most people we also love a good movie, and there are some superb movies out there about mathematics and famous mathematicians. But we have always been disappointed that there is no Hollywood film devoted solely to the "enchantress of numbers", Lady Ada Lovelace.
This feels like a massive oversight and a huge missed opportunity, that no director has yet seen the potential of the incredible story of her life to be made into an amazing film; especially amid the current appetite for period drama and historical significance, no doubt bolstered by the popularity of programs such as "Downton Abbey" and films such as "The King's Speech". There was a rather disappointing modern day crossover in 1997 called "Conceiving Ada" which is all we have at the moment, and rumours have been circulating for a while about the possibility of Zooey Deschanel starring as Lovelace one day but so far nothing has come to fruition.
A Life Story With It All
Her story has everything; maths, drama, romance, genius, triumph against adversity, intellectual excitement, history in the making, and ultimately tragedy. Successful films such as "A Beautiful Mind", "Rain Man" and "Good Will Hunting" have shown that while it is not an obvious summer blockbuster topic, audiences can connect with films about mathematics, and they especially like films about genius - the more "tortured" the better.
Many would argue that Lady Lovelace was just that - a tortured and under-appreciated genius. Certainly her mind was incredible; Charles Babbage described her as an "Enchantress who has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects (in our own country at least) could have exerted over it".
Her "Notes" on Babbage's Analytical machine, the prototype for the first ever computer, show how her unique combination of fierce intellect and free thinking imagination saw further into the future possibilities of such a machine than any of the men around her, predicting modern uses for computing 100 years ahead of time.
Lovelace described her approach as "poetical science" and this seems very apt as she was the product of the brief and unhappy marriage between her strict, Christian mother Lady Anne Isabella Noel Byron - who herself was the rare product of an excellent scientific education - and the "mad, bad and dangerous to know" poet Lord Byron. They separated when Ada was a month old, and he left the UK for good months later, only to die when Ada was eight.
Lady Byron was terrified by her estranged husband's madness. She was determined that Ada would not inherit his mental health problems, insisting her daughter have a strict education based in mathematics and the sciences. She seemed a cold figure, once writing to her own mother referring to Ada as 'it' saying "I talk to it for your satisfaction, not my own."
She also reportedly made Ada lie perfectly still for hours at a time, in order to teach her 'self control.' Any film should definitely cover her parent's tempestuous beginnings and expose the loneliness and illness which defined much of Ada's childhood as she was also sadly invalided by the measles and migraines with visual problems for years as a child, relying on her learning to keep her sane.
Ada As A Child
This pattern continued into her adult life. As her mother feared, Ada did indeed suffer from emotional and mental instability which she kept at bay with intense study. Later in life she wrote to her husband that "nothing but a very close and intense application to subjects of a scientific nature now seems at all to keep my imagination from running wild, or to stop the void which seems to be left in my mind." This makes her a fascinating figure for a biopic, a conflicted genius, limited by her gender and poor health but nevertheless making incredible contributions.
One of her tutors, Augustus De Morgan did recognize her prodigious talents but worried that her health would suffer if she studied too hard. He claimed "the very great tension of mind which they (mathematics) require is beyond the strength of a woman's physical power of application" which could make for an iconic scene portraying condescending patriarchal oppression. He would not, of course be the only man to doubt her abilities throughout her life, but others such as Babbage did support here, and she never let opposition stop her.
Her teenage years would also make for great cinema. She had a brief but passionate affair with one of her tutors, and even ran away with him. However, her tutor's family recognized her, and her mother soon tracked her down, forcibly bundling her home and managing to cover up the scandal. She became platonic friends with Babbage at the tender age of seventeen, and he was blown away by her intellect.
She was a great beauty, and despite her rebellious nature, and unusual intellectual interests she was married at nineteen to William King, who became the Earl of Lovelace. King was a humourless man described as a figure "more of fear than affection" who nevertheless provided his young wife with more support for her intellectual pursuits than most men of the era would have been expected to do. Their relationship would make for an interesting angle to her story, as would the way she was perceived - or misunderstood by others.
The couple had three children together (making her a working mother) although the stresses of childbirth worsened her ill health further. Despite this, she was a vivacious and charming woman who enjoyed the friendship of intelligent men, including Charles Dickens and Michael Farraday, at times leading to vicious rumours about her fidelity. Yet it is reported that when one of her children's tutors attempted to seduce her into an affair, she broke off all contact with him immediately. Whatever the truth, her unusual nature, beauty, intellect and unfortunate fondness for alcohol must have made her a figure of suspicion and jealousy, and this could be explored with compassion in any biopic made.
Lovelace's contributions to Babbage's work were never realised in her time, as he never finished his machine, and sadly her health continued to deteriorate. She suffered a bout of Cholera in 1837 leaving her with lingering problems with asthma and her digestive system which worsened as she aged, and worked increasingly hard on developing further her knowledge and understanding of mathematics.
A Modern Realisation Of The Analytical Machine
Lovelace was prescribed laudanum and opium which gradually ate away at her personality eventually leading to mood swings and hallucinations. She began to gamble, using a mathematical system she had devised which ultimately failed, leaving her with large gambling debts. Which only goes to show that the house always wins.
She became a materialist and an atheist late in life, much to her husband and mother's horror, and finally died from uterine cancer at the young age of 36.
Her mother, true to her character, allegedly withheld painkillers as Ada suffered what must have been an agonising death, in an effort to force her daughter to convert back to Christianity. While horrible, this would nonetheless make for a heart-breaking cinematic death scene.
A Legacy Left Behind
Yet this hypothetical film need not end on a desperate note. Fast forward to the 1950's and we see Alan Turing rediscovering Lovelace's notes. Her predictions greatly inspired many of Turing's ideas and therefore, from beyond the grave, helped great strides to be made in computing and A.I.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing In Upcoming Film "The Imitation Game"
Obviously we would have to have Benedict Cumberbatch revisit his role as Turing. The film should end showing the post-humous recognition Lady Lovelace has now received from all related fields, and how much modern technology owes its existence to the brilliant mind of an amazing woman, so long dead, who was so ahead of her time.
Seeing her struggles in film would help her story reach a greater audience of young people, especially young women who may become moved by her story and inspired by her example to pursue their own dreams in STEM.
Let's get this movie made!