De Morgan on Ada Lovelace

My Dear Lady Byron

I have received your note and should have answered no further than that I was very glad to find my apprehension (of being a party to doing mischief if I assisted Lady Lovelace’s studies without any caution) is unfounded in the opinion of yourself and Lord Lovelace, who must be better judges than I am, on every point of the case but one, and may be on that one. But at the same time it is very necessary that the one point should be properly stated.

I have never expressed to Lady Lovelace my opinion of her as a student of these matters: I always feared that it might promote an application to them which might be injurious to a person whose bodily health is not strong. I have therefore contented myself with very good, quite right, and so on. But I feel bound to tell you that the power of thinking on these matters which Lady L. has always shewn from the beginning of my correspondence with her, has been something so utterly out of the common way for any beginner, man or woman, that this power must be duly considered by her friends, with reference to the question whether they should urge or check her obvious determination to try not only to reach, but to get beyond, the present bounds of knowledge.  If you or Lord L. only think that it is a fancy for that particular kind of knowledge, which, though unusual in its object, may compare in intensity with the usual tastes of a young lady, you do not know the whole. And the same if you think that desire of distinction is the motive, science one of many paths which might be chosen to obtain it. There is easily seen to be the desire of distinction in Lady L’s character but the mathematical turn is one which opportunity must have made her take independently of that.

Had any young beginner, about to go to Cambridge, shewn the same power, I should have prophesied first that his aptitude at grasping the strong points and the real difficulties of first principles would have very much lowered his chance of being senior wrangler, secondly, that they would have certainly made him an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first rate eminence.

The tract about Babbage’s machine is a pretty thing enough, but I could I think produce a series of extracts, out of Lady Lovelace’s first queries upon new subjects, which would make a mathematician see that it was no criterion of what might be expected from her.

All women who have published mathematics hitherto have shewn knowledge, and power of getting it, but no one, except perhaps (I speak doubtfully) Maria Agnesi, has wrestled with difficulties and shewn a man’s strength in getting over them. The reason is obvious: the very great tension of mind which they require is beyond the strength of a woman’s physical power of application.  Lady L. has unquestionably as much power as would require all the strength of a man‘s constitution to bear the fatigue of thought to which it will unquestionably lead her. It is very well now, when the subject has not entirely engrossed her attention: by and bye when, as always happens, the whole of the thoughts are continually and entirely concentrated upon them, the struggle between the mind and body will begin.

Perhaps you think that Lady L. will, like Mrs. Somerville, go on in a course of regulated study, duly mixed with the enjoyment of society, the ordinary cares of life &c &c. But Mrs. Somerville’s mind never led her into other than the details of mathematical work: Lady L. will take quite a different route. It makes me smile to think of Mrs. Somerville’s quiet acquiescence in ignorance of the nature of force, saying “it is \(dv/dt\)” (a math. formula for it) “and that is all we know about the matter”–and to imagine Lady L. reading this, much less writing it.

Having now I think quite explained that you must consider Lady L’s case as a peculiar one I will leave it to your better judgment, supplied with facts, only begging that this note may be confidential.

All here pretty well; I hope your house is free from illness and

Dear Lady Bryon
Yours very truly
A De Morgan

69 G. S.
Janry. 21/44

(Quoted from Velma Huskey, and Harry Huskey, “Lady Lovelace and Charles Babbage,” in Annals of the History of Computing 2(4), pp.299-329, 1980)

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