Skip to content

Conceiving Ada – A Review

Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, known more commonly as Ada Lovelace, is credited with being the ‘first programmer’ as she wrote code for a machine that would be built close to one hundred years later. This feat is heightened by the fact that she, as a woman, accomplished this during the early 1800s in England when Mathematics was a much more male-dominated subject than it is today. In my research on Ada Lovelace, I came across a movie that is based on her life called Conceiving Ada. One of the significant themes that can be seen is the similarities between the two female protagonists’ lives and the repression that they suffer.

In Conceiving Ada, a modern day computer scientist, Emmy Coer, is obsessed with the life of Ada Lovelace. Her current project deals with trying to come up with a way of ‘communicating with the past by tapping into undying information waves’ (Wikipedia). For this purpose, she creates artificial life agents, such as computer-generated dogs and birds, to go back into cyber space and retrieve information from the past. She is able to reach Ada Lovelace’s world and actually talk to Ada as Ada’s life is played out on her computer screen.

There are a lot of parallels between the lives of the two women. Both are English and are geniuses at computation and problem solving. In the movie, Ada is referred to as ‘the mother of all programmers’ while Emmy is called ‘the mother of cyber genetic transplants’. Ada, who is the poet Lord Byron’s daughter, did not know him while she was growing up. With regards to Emmy, the movie seems to suggest that she had no father figure in her life either. The more significant similarity between Emmy and Ada is that they are contrary characters – their determination to be in control of their lives and do what they want to do pushes them to defy people and society’s norms. Emmy lives with her boyfriend Nicholas and in watching them, I’ve noticed a reversal in ‘stereotypical gender’ portrayals. Emmy smokes heavily and rides a bike to work. Her manner of speaking makes her seem more aggressive and independent than Nicholas who is a soft-spoken man, buys the groceries and is concerned about how junk food and coffee will affect her health. When Emmy discovers that she is pregnant, Nicholas is overjoyed but she doesn’t want to keep the baby as she is much too busy with her work. It is interesting to note that in spite of the switch in the typical gender roles, Emmy is still coerced by Nicholas into having the baby. In Ada’s story, we see the typical gender roles being assumed but Ada using that to her advantage. She uses her femininity to seduce men so that they can help her achieve what she wants. For example, while she is still a teenager, she seduces her Math tutor so that he is more willing to teach her everything he knows, thereby allowing her to learn as much Math as possible. After she is married, she uses her children’s tutor, David, to place bets for her on the race track in the city. She also seduces a man named John Cross so that he can teach her the science of cryptography so that her bets to be carried to the city can be encoded on her shawls.

In spite, or perhaps because, of their strong personalities, both women, especially Ada, are repressed in their work because of society and its rules. Both Emmy and Ada had difficult mothers who tried to suppress their daughters’ creativity in Mathematics and Computer Science and steer them towards more conventional domestic goals such as having children. Ada had three children to take care of, though she later says that she hardly knew them. Both had partners or faced men who were jealous of their talent and ultimately interfered with their work (Holden). Ada collaborated with Charles Babbage, now known as the ‘Father of Computers’, in translating Italian notes on his analytical engine. When confronting him about changing the notes she had sent him, he accused her of having affairs and angrily told her to remember that she was a wife and mother and to remember her place in society. It is slightly more complicated to determine the cause of Nicholas’ actions with regard to Emmy’s work. Because Emmy had been working so much and she was pregnant, she fainted one night. After the incident, Nicholas ‘messes around’ with her computer code in spite of Emmy’s specific instructions to not touch it. It is most likely that his intention was for her program to fail so that she would stop working so much but whether it is because he is jealous of her talent and obsession with Ada or because of his concern for her health, I am not sure. Perhaps it is a mixture of both.

With all this, there is a strong undertone of wanting to be freed in the movie – from societal pressures and family and all things that are cumbersome to their work. While Ada and Emmy talk to each other, Ada asks Emmy if she can save her. Emmy says she thinks she can. The sense of longing for freedom is intensified by this scene being repeated twice in the movie. Freedom is also symbolized by the recurrence of a bird in various forms. The first picture we see of Ada is one taken by Charles Babbage of her holding a bird. Emmy tried to use that same bird, which she calls Charlene, as an artificial life agent to go back in time to the origin of the photograph. Ada Lovelace is called ‘bird’ by her friends and family and is given a music box with a singing bird by her husband. Emmy has a tattoo of a bird on her back and is, like Ada, given a cage with toy singing birds by Nicholas. The bird can be thought to represent flying away from troubles and being independent in living its own life.

This movie thus shows that while one hundred and fifty years have passed between the time of Ada Lovelace and Emmy, the oppression of women has not been alleviated much.

Works cited:

  • Conceiving Ada. Dir. Lynn Hershman Leeson. Perfs. Tilda Swinton, Timothy Leary, Karen Black, Francesca Faridany, John Perry Barlow. 1997. DVD. Fox Lorber Films, 1999.
  • Wikipedia
  • Holden, Stephen. “Calling Byron’s Daughter, Inventory of a Computer.”
    New York Times. 15 February 1999.
  • One Response
    1. Anne Dalke permalink*
      March 16, 2009


      You end your review on a very bleak note—“this movie shows that the oppression of women has not been alleviated much” in the 150 years that have passed between the time of Ada Lovelace and our contemporary, Emmy. Is that your thesis, then? That there has been that little change? What of Emmy’s daughter Ada? What do you imagine of her life? Why does the movie end w/ her? Is there no hope there?

      The ethical question of Emmy’s daughter is, I think, very real. We have unprecedented control over what a baby can become. What kinds of control are morally acceptable? Do you think Emmy took “what we can do” well past “what we should do”?

      You spend so much time on the similarity between the two protagonists that some of the complexity and idiosyncrasy of Ada gets lost. Most striking to me is the possibility that much of her interest in math and algorithms was centered on finding “the system” for beating the odds in horse races. A destructive gambling habit led to the creation of programming–driven by an urge she couldn’t control?

      The technology of making the film—that is, the story of Lynn Hershan Leeson’s relationship w/ technology—might have added an interesting (perhaps also hopeful?) layer to your analysis; evidently, because her budget was so tight, Leeson shot the principal actors in six days in an empty room—and then added the Victorian backdrops by photographing bed and breakfasts in San Francisco, and manipulating the images in Photoshop. Now there’s inventiveness for you!

    Comments are closed.