Ada Lovelace, electricity, ideology & Victorian science

Reviewed by Ralph Dumain

Iwan Rhys Morus is the author of several books on the history of 19th-century science. The two of immediate interest here are:

Frankenstein’s Children: Electricity, Exhibition, and Experiment in Early-Nineteenth-Century London. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Shocking Bodies: Life, Death & Electricity in Victorian England. Stroud: The History Press, 2011.

Here we will discuss Shocking Bodies, specifically part II (chapters 6-9) featuring Ada Lovelace.

I knew about Ada, Countess of Lovelace, as the inventor of computer programming in her association with Charles Babbage. I also knew about the tasteless public spectacles of reanimating corpses with electricity, which interested Percy Shelley and influenced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. However, I never put these two topics together. But the novel phenomenon of electricity and its relation to the human body was a major preoccupation of Victorian Britain, and Ada wanted in on it. Ada was interested in more than math. On her first meeting with Andrew Crosse, who thought he achieved spontaneous generation of insects via electricity: “Ada discussed electricity with Crosse and German metaphysics and mathematics with Crosse’s son John.” Her ambition and connections were rare for a woman:

Her aim was of ‘one day getting cerebral phenomena such that I can put them into mathematical equations; in short a law or laws, for the mutual actions of the molecules of brain; (equivalent to the law of gravitation for the planetary & sideral world.)’ For this, she needed to become ‘a most skilful practical manipulator in experimental tests; & that, on materials difficult to deal with; viz: the brain, blood, & nerves, of animals’. This was why she needed Crosse’s assistance. [Chapter 6]

The British world of electrical investigation was divided between the genteel elite and vulgar and often more radical circles with more adventurous claims. Faraday belonged to the former camp.

Right at the other end of the spectrum were radical demagogues preaching sedition on street corners. Electricity and its materialist messages played an important role in their sermonising as well. [….] Throughout the 1820s and 1830s radical orators at London’s Rotunda and elsewhere regaled their audiences with electrical parables. The fiery publisher and politician Richard Carlile, or when he was in prison his lover and fellow campaigner Eliza Sharples, peppered their political speeches with galvanic language. At radical halls of science all over the country, orators like Thomas Simmons Mackintosh — a follower of the utopian socialist Robert Owen — delivered fiery secular sermons on electricity, life and revolution. Electricity’s radical origins might be carefully swept under the carpet in places like the Royal Institution, but they were fully on show elsewhere. [Chapter 7]

Ada was one of the few in a position to move around in the circles of both bombast and respectability.

Ada, on the one hand, was a friend and correspondent of Faraday’s. On the other, she associated with radicals. She was familiar with the Adelaide Gallery, having studied the Jacquard Loom on display there for her work with Charles Babbage on his Analytic Engine and, through Crosse, she had connections to the London Electrical Society and its enthusiastic, self-helping membership. [Chapter 7]

Coincident with the social divide was the ideological divide, notably the insistence by Faraday and his circle to keep the notion of a life force separate and excluded from the phenomenon of electricity and scientific research.

That meant that they had to strip it [electricity] of its radical connotations and divorce it from its original connections with materialist ideas about the origins of life. The spectre of the French Revolution still loomed large over British electricity, even as late as the 1840s, and even the slightest hint of materialism or radicalism was fiercely resisted by the new breed of gentlemen of science.

This is very clear, for example, in Faraday’s own single explicit foray into the debate about electricity and life, in the aftermath of Andrew Crosse’s notorious experiments in 1837. For his Fifteenth Series of Experimental Researches, Faraday carried out a number of experiments using the Adelaide Gallery’s famous electrical eels. [….] In the first instance, the experiments were meant to demonstrate that the electricity produced by the eels was the same as electricity produced from other sources, such as from galvanic batteries or electrical machines. In this respect the experiments were simply an extension of work that Faraday had already done in demonstrating the identity of electricity from different sources. But Faraday wanted to do more than that. He wanted to use his experiments with the electric eels to draw a line in the sand. [....] His experiments, he said, were ‘upon the threshold of what we may, without presumption, believe man is permitted to know of this matter’. Whilst they did indeed show that ‘the nervous power is in some degree analogous to such powers as heat, electricity, and magnetism’, all this meant was that the nervous power itself was not and could not be ‘the direct principle of life’. This was drawing an interesting and fine distinction, and it is worth noting that this was a distinction in principle rather than one based on any kind of observation. As far as Faraday was concerned, if the nervous power could be experimented with, then this meant that it was not, ultimately, the force of life itself. Life for Faraday was, by definition, beyond any kind of mere human meddling. [Chapter 7]

Skipping ahead in the narrative:

In 1854 (two years after Ada’s death), Faraday gave a lecture on mental education at the Royal Institution before Albert, the Prince Consort. This lecture was Faraday’s manifesto of the knowable and unknowable. It started with some strictures on the limits of human knowledge that would have gone to the very heart of Ada’s project if she had lived to hear them. Nothing he was about to say, Faraday insisted to his audience, had anything to do with human knowledge of the divine. ‘Let no one suppose for a moment,’ he warned, ‘that the self-education I am about to commend in respect of the things of this life, extends to any considerations of the hope set before us, as if man by reasoning could find out God.’ Whilst there could be no incompatibility between God’s truth and the truths arrived at by reason and experiment, any understanding of God’s truth was derived from faith alone. There was an ‘absolute distinction between religious and ordinary belief’. This was a strong statement to make in the face of prevailing orthodoxy. William Paley’s natural theological argument held that the rational study of nature provides evidence for the existence of a Creator, and that the organisation of nature also held lessons for the rational mind about the attributes of God; and this remained the dominant view amongst the gentlemen of science. [Chapter 9]

Radicals had different ideas. Eliza Sharples preached that electricity is the basis for animal and human sentience—it is ‘a self-acting electrical machine, sustained by currents of atmospheric air and liquids’—and that spirit cannot exist independently of the body. The Owenite Thomas Simmons Mackintosh ‘delivered fiery secular sermons on electricity, life and revolution.’

Robert Chambers, in his anonymously published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), argued that ‘life and mental action’ are one, ultimately asserting the ‘absolute identity of the brain with a galvanic battery’. Chambers underwrote a liberal reformist politics opposed to radicalism. Geology professor Adam Sedgwick was so scandalized he thought the book must have been written by a woman, presumably Ada Lovelace. Chambers was not alone.

The system of electrobiology developed during the 1840s by Alfred Smee was similarly meant as an antidote to revolutionary sentiment and a way of defending orthodox, Anglican religion. Smee, like Chambers, envisaged the brain as a galvanic battery, linked to the peripheries of the body by ‘bio-telegraphs.’ Everything about the body worked by electricity, and Smee went to great lengths to suggest how different electrical arrangements might be used to model the senses of hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch. The idea of God, according to Smee (and he had in mind the orthodox and conservative Anglican God) was hard-wired into the electrical structure of the brain. Catholics, Chartists and other ne’er-do-wells were quite literally suffered from faulty wiring, resulting in ‘an irregular action of the brain, analagous to the irregular action of machinery’. Unfortunately for Smee, the link between electricity and radical politics was too firm in most readers’ minds for them to readily accept his conservative version of galvanism. Reviewers simply poked fun at his efforts to build a ‘living, moving, feeling, thinking, moral, and religious man, by a combination of voltaic circuits’. [Chapter 7]

Chapter 8 details prevailing prejudices against women—concerning hysteria, female sexuality, etc.:

Men like Thomas Laycock or Golding Bird were intent on turning electricity into an instrument of control. With it, they could offer themselves to society as guardians of the moral order. But for them, as for the likes of Halse or Leithead, electricity also seemed to offer an important tool for probing the relationship between human bodies and minds and the world around them. This was what Ada Lovelace had very much in mind as she set out for Broomfield and her encounter with Andrew Crosse. She was well aware, also, of the links that were being forged between electricity, hysteria and the essence of femininity, and what they might mean for her own condition and her experimental ambitions.

In 1844 Ada was seriously ill. Her doctor gave her laudanum. Ada was convinced that galvanization would help solve the problem. Her scope was greater, convinced that she could used her condition to advance science: her body was ...

so susceptible that it is an experimental laboratory always about me, & inseparable from me. I walk about, not in a Snail-Shell, but in a Molecular Laboratory. This is a new view to take of one’s physical frame; & amply compensates me for all the sufferings, had they been even greater. [Quoted in Chapter 9]

She deemed herself an ‘instrument for the divine purposes’, with assurances to Andrew Crosse: ‘Religion to me is science, and science is religion’. She waxed speculatively, perhaps stimulated by the laudanum.

Ada, labeling herself a Unitarian, begged to work with Faraday, who claimed religious membership among the ‘Sandemanians’, Faraday declined, determined to keep religion and science separate. Faraday adamantly opposed quack science, table-turning, mesmerism, and phrenology. Ada, who straddled the elite and popular spheres of science, was fascinated by mesmerism and phrenology.

Both phrenology and mesmerism seemed to offer potential models for her own researches. They straddled the boundary between the inner and outer worlds in the same sort of way. This kind of boundary breaking did not fit well with Faraday’s ideas about knowledge. Neither did the egalitarian ethos that underlay such views. In fact, the mesmerists’ and phrenologists’ claim that their practices were open to anybody was exactly the kind of thing that made Faraday suspicious. Faraday made it quite clear in his lecture on mental education that the ‘multitudes’ unprepared to undergo the rigours of self-disciplined self-education had little useful to say about matters of fact. In this, at least, Faraday’s opinion was shared by most other gentlemen of science. Natural philosophy was the preserve of the few rather than the many. For someone like Ada’s mentor Charles Babbage, science was to be regarded as a vocation that was accessible to only a privileged few. There was a strict division to be drawn between those who had the mental capacity to practise natural philosophy and those who formed the audience for their work. [Chapter 9]

Babbage was out for reforming the Royal Society and instituting professionalism. For Babbage, the Calculating Engine, designed to replace mental drudgery akin to other machinery, emulated the Divine Mind. Babbage, like Faraday, would have little sympathy with Ada’s project.

[…] Babbage in his (unsanctioned) Ninth Bridgewater Treatise used the Calculating Engine as his exemplar. God had designed the universe so that it embodied exactly the kinds of principles that were embodied in the Analytical Engine — the latest version of Babbage’s invention. The Analytical Engine exhibited the basic elements of intelligence: memory and foresight. It remembered what it had done in the past and could predict the form of future calculations. God had embedded the same kinds of characteristics in the operations of the universe as well. The Analytical Engine operated by means of punched cards that could be fed into the machine, conveying instructions about what calculations to make. The cards might, for example, tell the machine to calculate according to a particular formula a set number of times, and then to switch to a different calculation. According to Babbage, this was also how God had built natural law into the very fabric of the universe. The Analytical Engine embodied Babbage’s view of the production of knowledge — just as the universe embodied God’s law — as an ordered, hierarchical activity that needed to be reduced to mechanical simplicity so that it could easily overseen and managed by disciplined gentlemen such as himself. [Chapter 9]

Morus concludes that turning one’s body into a laboratory would be the alternative for ‘women and the disenfranchised who were excluded from the inner world of Victorian natural philosophy’. But ...

The world of experiment as she encountered it in Andrew Crosse’s laboratory was clearly not as she expected it. She complained that there ‘is in Crosse the most utter lack of system even in his Science’. There is little in her correspondence about any experimental work she might have done there. In fact, she worried that she had ‘quite a difficulty to get him to show me what I want. Nothing is ever ready All chaos & chance.’ She had clearly found plenty to talk about, on the other hand, and Crosse’s son turned out to be full of information about the latest developments in German science. Ada left Fyne Court feeling that her ‘visit to Broomfield seems to have been very opportune & to have laid the foundations for much that is wanted for me at this epoch of my progress’. Despite this report, there is very little evidence to suggest that she continued with her electrical enthusiasm following the visit. Ada’s project to turn her own body into a laboratory seems to have ended up going nowhere. [Chapter 9]

I did not know that electricity loomed this large throughout the 19th century and was the subject of ideological divisions correlated with political divisions. It is one more historical example of what happens when knowledge is limited and scientific researchers, propagandists, and popularizers fill in the gaps and extend knowledge claims beyond the evidence and range of warranted applications of theoretical ideas to make dubious empirical and universal and even metaphysical claims. Models and metaphors based on novel scientific concepts and phenomena have been universalized and abused in this fashion since the dawn of modern science—mechanics, electricity, evolutionary theory, relativity, quantum mechanics, genetics, cybernetics, computation, complexity—what have I left out?

Additional references:

Desmond, Adrian. “Artisan Resistance and Evolution in Britain, 1819-1848,” Osiris, second series, vol. 3, 1987, pp. 77-110. [Not referenced in book]

Desmond, Adrian. The Politics of Evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Morus, Iwan Rhys, ed. Bodies/Machines. Oxford; New York: Berg, 2002. [Not referenced in book]

Morus, Iwan Rhys. How the Victorians Took Us to the Moon: The Story of the 19th-Century Innovators Who Forged Our Future. New York: Pegasus Books, 2022. [Not referenced in book]

Morus, Iwan Rhys. Michael Faraday and the Electrical Century. London: Icon Books, 2004.

O’Shea, Lizzie. Future Histories: What Ada Lovelace, Tom Paine, and the Paris Commune Can Teach Us about Digital Technology. London; New York: Verso, 2019. [Not referenced in book]

Padua, Sydney. The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: with Interesting & Curious Anecdotes of Celebrated and Distinguished Characters Fully Illustrating a Variety of Instructive and Amusing Scenes; as Performed within and without the Remarkable Difference Engine. New York: Pantheon Books, 2015. Graphic novel.  [Not referenced in book]

Popova, Maria. The Art of Discovering and Combining: Ada Lovelace on the Nature of the Imagination and Its Two Core Faculties, The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings). [Not referenced in book]

Stein, Dorothy. Ada: A Life and a Legacy. Cambridge. MA: MIT Press, 1985.

Toole, Betty Alexandra, ed. Ada, The Enchantress of Numbers: A Selection from the Letters of Lord Byron's Daughter and Her Description of the First Computer. Mill Valley CA: Strawberry Press, 1992.

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