12 February 2017

The Aging of Information

Ada, Countess of Lovelace
What degree of separation lies between the legendary Lord Byron and the developer of the first computer? The answer is one. In writing an article describing the connection, I fell into another story.

Wikipedia appears at the top of on-line searches. I often do quick look-ups because I know exactly where to glance to find a birth date, an affiliation, or a geographic location. As for opinion-free articles, it’s a bit less useful, but it provides links to launch research projects.

Supposedly anyone can edit Wikipedia but, for someone not familiar with the mountain of rules and the complexity of cliques and cadres with their own agendas, adding or modifying an article can drop one into a minefield. So I’m reading the article on Charles Babbage and I see a note questioning a salient point in the article. I knew I’d seen that before and found it in the Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition. No harm opening Wikipedia and documenting that, right?

Except it was immediately reverted. What? Why?

“The reference is too old,” I’m told. That made the second time that’s happened to me.

Modern teenagers abhor anything ‘old’… old music, old movies, old technology, even if a song, film, or cell phone is a two-week-old antiquity, and God forbid if a recording or movie happens to be years old. But I had committed the unpardonable… I’d used a reference a century old, because the latest edition resides behind a paywall.

It never pays to argue with rabid Wiki bureaucrats, but I did. I pointed out Wikipedia was founded on the public domain 11th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. (Trivia: The Britannica was subsequently purchased by Sears, Roebuck & Co. in 1920.)

Wikipedia’s administrator replied, “We don’t use it because it’s unreliable, sexist, racist, elitist, ethno-centrist, …” (and a passel of other -ists). In fact, no less than mystery author S. S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright) claimed Britannica was “characterized by misstatement, inexcusable omissions, rabid and patriotic prejudices, personal animosities, blatant errors of fact, scholastic ignorance, gross neglect of non-British culture, an astounding egotism, and an undisguised contempt for American progress.”

Funny, that seems ironically close to the same accusations leveled at Wikipedia. But they try.

For three-quarters of a century, the massive encyclopedia has been lauded “the finest edition of the Britannica ever issued, and ranks with the Enciclopedia Italiana and the Espasa as one of the three greatest encyclopædias.” It was the edition when T. S. Eliot wrote Animula:
Curl up the small soul in the window seat
Behind the Encyclopædia Britannica.
Sir Kenneth Clark referred to Eliot’s poem when he wrote, “It must be the last encyclopædia in the tradition of Diderot (writer and editor of the famous French Encyclopédie) which assumes that information can be made memorable only when it is slightly coloured by prejudice.”

Therein lies the rub. The 1911 edition is prejudiced. Americans were struggling with racism, but Britain lagged far behind and it shows in the articles. Our physical sciences have pushed unimaginably ahead and mathematics was never Britannica’s strong suit.

My own Marshall McLuhan-like rule runs something like “Data is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom.” Data ages. Knowledge can be updated and kept current. But does wisdom age?

Should Socrates be ignored because he’s too ancient to know anything? Should the music of Bach, as I was told, stop being published because it’s ‘old’ and its attention shifted to young, new, upcoming songwriters? Should an entire century-old reference be discarded because some few articles are now out of date, racist or sexist?

What do you think?

Lord Byron and the Analytical Difference Engines

The irascible Lord Byron not only became the focus of modern romantic literature, he was also an example of the picaresque anti-hero found throughout English literature. He bore only one legitimate daughter, Augusta ‘Ada’ Byron, Countess of Lovelace, whom he called ‘Ada’.

Men of science and mathematics respected Ada for her brilliant mind and interest in ‘poetic science’. Starting as a teen, she became acquainted with Sir David Brewster, Andrew Crosse, Charles Dickens, Michael Faraday, Charles Wheatstone, and Charles Babbage, this last introduced by her tutor, science writer and polymath Mary Fairfax Somerville.

Babbage designed what many consider the first mechanical computer. We software people fondly refer to Ada Lovelace as our first programmer. We even named a programming language after her. That she’s not mentioned in the 11th edition might be less a case of sexism (Lord Byron isn’t listed either) and more a lack of prognostication– computers wouldn’t be invented for another half century. But to be sure, Lady Lovelace was well regarded in her own time and remains highly respected today.

Both Ada and her father died at the young age of 36.

Bonus material for picaresque/romance fans: Lord Byron as a Boy

The New York Times

26 February 1898

Byron as a Boy

His Mother’s Influence — His School Days and Mary Chaworth

For a more complete understanding of Lord Byron, not so much relative to his poetry as to the man himself, Mr. Rowland E. Prothero’s article, “The Childhood and School Days of Byron,” in the Nineteenth Century may be referred to. Mr. Prothero tells us a great deal of Byron as a boy, and the influence his mother had in shaping his character.

In the latest issue of Blackwood, Mr. J. M. Bulloch, in “The Gay Gordons,” gives his article this sub-title, “A Study of Inherited Prestige,” and from the Gordons, “gay” or otherwise, came Lord Byron’s mother. These Cordons were a fighting race, with certain eccentricities. “ From his father, and the l3yrons,” Mr. Prothero writes, “Lord Byron, together with a love of the sea and of adventure, inherited his hot passions, extravagance, and defiant self-will.” But he was even more than that the child of his mother. To her he owed, besides his constitutional tendency to fatness, his irritability, jealousy, and caprice, his family pride, and personal vanity, his melancholy, his superstition, and in part the religious creed against which his heart revolted.”

Catharine Gordon of Gight, who was born in 1765, had the Stewart blood in her veins. Her father had committed suicide_ Catharine was brought up by her grandmother, Lady Gight, “a penurious, illiterate woman, who, however, was careful that her granddaughter was better educated than herself.”
“Miss Catharine Gordon was a young lady who had her full share of feminine vanity. At the age of thirty-five she was a stout, dumpy, coarse-looking woman, awkward in her movements, provincial in her accent and manner. But as her son was vain of his personal appearance, and especially of his bands, neck, and ears, so she, when other charms had vanished, clung to her pride in her arms and hands. She exhausted the patience of Stewartson, the artist, who in 1800, after forty sittings, painted her portrait, by her anxiety to have a particular turn in her elbow exhibited in the most pleasing light. Of her ancestry she was, to use her son’s expression, as ‘ proud as Lucifer,’ looked down upon the Byron family, and regarded the Duke of Gordon as an inferior member of her clan. Born and bred in the strictest Calvinism of the day, a superstitious believer in ghosts, prophecies, and fortune telling, she was subject to fits of melancholy, which her misfortunes intensified. In later life, at any rate, her temper was ungovernable, her language, when excited, unrestrained, her love of gossip insatiable. Capricious in her moods, she flew from one extreme to the other, passing, for the slightest cause, from passionate affection to equally passionate resentment.”
Mr. Prothero copies a letter of Lady Byron’s, written in 1809, to a fox-hunting neighbor, which reaches to the extreme height of vituperation. Poor woman, she had, however, enough to make her irritable, for her husband was a brute. Not only was he wicked, but he wasted her money, and yet she seems to have adored this worthless man. Her son, Lord Byron, had not the least perception of the value of money, and his expenditures were reckless. Because Lord Byron was heavily in debt and away from home, she lived at Newstead, so as to keep creditors at bay, but when an upholsterer “put in an execution for debts contracted by her son in furnishing Newstead, she saw herself beggared, since all her worldly possessions were liable to seizure.”

Of Capt. John Byron, Lord Byron’s father, the history is well known. When Catharine Gordon married him on the 13th of March, 1785, he was head over ears in debt, and certainly he took a wife because he thought she had money. What available means his wife had in her own right were soon spent, and the two had to go to France until some arrangement with debtors could be brought about. In 1788 the Byrons returned to England, and on the 22d of January, 1788, in a house in Hollis Street, London, her only child, George Gordon, afterward the sixth Lord Byron, was born. There were, however, expectations, for between her boy and the peerage there was really but one life, that of a great uncle, who was an invalid and was then an oldish man.

After the birth of her child, Mrs. Byron Gordon lived at Aberdeen. Her husband by a prior marriage had a daughter, Augusta, and his second wife was called upon to support both children. When Capt. Byron died, in 1791, all his widow had was some £122 a year, out of which she had to lodge, clothe, and feed her son and herself, and to provide for his education. Mr. Prothero writes: “For a woman as proud as Lucifer, and, still worse, for one who had many small vanities, the trial was severe, and the circumstances of her short married life and of her prolonged struggle with poverty should never be forgotten in any fair estimate of her much-abused character.”

Lord Byron’s earliest days must have been passed in many different lodgings, and so his training was lax. The general characteristics of the boy are fairly represented by his various biographers, and he did not differ from other lads.

He is described as “courageous, quarrelsome, resentful, sensitive, abounding in animal spirits, eager to excel in sports, adverse to study, full of mischief.” There are many stories of George’s early pranks, and one is that when in company with his mother on a visit to Lady Abercrombie, Byron was missed. Then a scream was heard, and an object “clad in a boy’s coat and hat shot out of a window.

Byron had dressed a pillow in his clothes, and, with a shriek, launched it from the room above, in hope of persuading his mother that he had accidentally fallen.” He was indeed “the little deevil Geordie Byron.”

In 1T98, by the death of William Lord Byron, George became heir to the property. Then came the change in his life.

It is not true that Byron’s lameness was attributable to any neglect on the part of his mother. Orthopaedic science was almost in its infancy at the close of the last century. With what poor means she had, Mrs. Byron did her best for her crippled son. In London, John Hunter had been consulted, and such assistance as trussmakers could furnish was called in. If the lameness was alleviated for a while, it increased in time, due to Byron himself, who refused to wear any mechanical appliances. A Dr. Laurie, who attended the lad, wrote to Mrs. Byron in 1801: “I much fear his extreme inattention will counteract any exertion on my part to make him better. I have only to add that with proper care and bandaging his foot may still be greatly recovered; but any delay further than the present vacation would render it folly to undertake it.” So came about Byron’s permanent lameness.

The Newstead estate gave £850 of rental, barely sufficient to keep the abbey and the farm buildings in repair. Through the Duke of Portland, Mrs. Byron obtained a pension of £300, the reasons for giving her that sum being “her relationship to the families of Byron and Gordon. Lord Carlisle was the boy’s guardian, and his duties could not have been pleasant. He is said to have neglected Byron. Mr. Prothero writes: “A very short acquaintance with Mrs. Byron, who, besides her noisy manners, had an unrefined appearance, … had probably convinced him that he could be of little service to her son unless he were prepared to assume entire charge of the boy. He can scarcely be blamed for rejecting such an alternative.”

Hanson was the family lawyer, and his two sons have left reminiscences of Byron which are worthy of record, for Byron was staying during his holidays with them.
“Newton Hanson says that ‘there could not be a nicer looking boy than he was at the age of ten-and-a-half. He speaks with admiration, apart from the boy’s lameness, of his good figure, broad chest, and amazing length of arm. Nor was Byron’s physical infirmity a bar to his activity. All the morning, indeed, he lay on the sofa, absorbed in a book, but, once at play, he was as nimble as any of the party, always the first to reach the top of the pyramid which John Hunter had erected in the garden. In the presence of strangers he was shy, but with Mr. Hanson, be was always at his ease and tractable. He was subject to fits of nervous agitation, when, if any one approached him, he would scream out: ‘Don’t come near me! I have a devil.’ His irritability of temper, which showed itself in his habit of gnawing his nails, sometimes exploded in violent rages. On one occasion, having quarreled with the cook, he rushed into the hall, snatched a gun, which was hanging over the fireplace, pointed it at her, and pulled the trigger. The gun was loaded, and the woman’s cap was riddled with the shot. For this act he was very properly horse hipped by Mr. Hanson. It is probably to this incident that Byron referred when he said: ‘My ostensible temper has certainly improved in later years, but I shudder, and must, to my latest hour, regret the consequence of it and my passions combined. One event – but no matter; there are others not much better to think or also, and to them I give the preference.’
There is a story of some rough play between Lord Portsmouth and the boy, when Portsmouth pulled Byron’s ear. The boy picked up a shell and hurled it at Lord Portsmouth’s head, missing him and breaking the glass of the conservatory. Mrs Hanson wanted Byron to make peace, but Byron kept saying: “But I did throw it on purpose. I will teach a fool of an Earl to pull another noble’s ear.”

Hanson in 1799 wrote a letter to Mrs. Byron, informing her that George had been maltreated by a servant in her employ, and that the woman, as the boy had told him, “was perpetually beating him.” Mrs. Byron did not leave a pleasant impression on the Hanson boys. They said she was “very fickle in her manner toward Byron, boxing his ears and bursting out into violent ejaculations of disgust when she caught him biting his nails; but that on the whole they were very fond of one another.” When Byron went back to school, his mother quarreled with the master and wanted to take George away, but Lord Carlisle interfered. In 1801 Byron went to Harrow and remained there till July, 1805. The poet’s life at Harrow has been fully told, though some new facts are presented.

Mrs. Byron, either through necessity or because she was an uncomfortable person to live with, was constantly on the move from 1801 till 1803; then she rented a house at Burgage Manor, at Southwell. Byron gave trouble at Harrow, and declared he would not stay there unless one of the masters who had him under his charge was changed for another he approved of, and Byron carried his point. In 1803 Drury, the head master, complained of Byron’s negligence, his bad temper, his irregularities, but seemed to have presaged his talent. In September, 1803, the boy left Harrow, for he was smitten with the charms of Mary Chaworth (his cousin), and Mrs. Byron wrote to Hanson:
“You may well be surprised, and so may Dr Drury, that Byron is not returned to Harrow. But the truth is, I cannot get him to return to school, though I have done all in my power for six weeks past. He has no indisposition that I know of but love, desperate love, the worst of all maladies in my opinion. In short, the boy is distractedly in love with Miss Chaworth, and he has not been with me three weeks all the time he has been in this country, but spent all his time at Annesley.

“If my son was of a proper age, and the lady disengaged, it Is the last of all connections that I would wish to take place; it has given me much uneasiness. To prevent all trouble in future I am determined he shall not come here again till Easter; therefore I beg you will find some proper situation for him at the next holidays. I don’t care what I pay. I wish Dr Drury would keep him. I shall go over to Newstead tomorrow and make a last effort to get him to town.”
In January 1804, Byron was sent back to Harrow, and his conduct showed improvement. Mr. Prothero writes that Byron’s life at home was a most unhappy one, rendered so by “the increased violence of his mother’s furious temper.”

Byron did not want to stay with his mother, and confided his troubles to his half sister Augusta, asking her to so manage matters that he might go to the Hansons. She writes: “My opinion is that as they (Mrs Byron and (young) Lord Byron) cannot agree, they had better be separated, for such eternal scenes of wrangling are enough to spoil the very best temper and disposition in the universe.” Byron then spent his Christmas holidays (1804 and 1805) with the Hansons. Byron was not willing to return to Harrow, but wanted to enter a university. He was too young, only sixteen. Dr Drury would have been glad to get rid of him, and wrote to that effect: “During his last residence at Harrow his conduct gave me much trouble and uneasiness.”

Lord Carlisle would not, however, hear of it, and so Byron went again to Harrow, where he remained till July 1805. There was a change, however, in the school, for now Butler was Byron’s master. His conduct showed a marked improvement, which was noted by Lord Carlisle. Mrs. Byron wrote of her son: “He is a turbulent, unruly boy, that wants to be emancipated from all restraints; his sentiments are, however, noble.”

Mr. Prothero says that “at this period of his life and throughout his whole career there is evidence that Byron had in him the making of a fine character.” At Harrow he still gave trouble. He did not get along with Butler, who, in 1805, became bead master. Then came Cambridge, too much money, an idle, dissolute life, and “the temptations that beset a lad of seventeen.”

Augusta must have lost respect for her brother, for she describes him as living “in idleness and ill humor with the world.” (1807) Mr. Prothero’s conclusion of this sketch of Byron’s early life and of his mother’s bad management is: “Byron’s character deteriorated; he went from bad to worse until ambition of literary fame or political distinction stirred him again to effort.”

© The New York Times
26 February 1898
2500 words


  1. Good to see Ada mentioned. She was truly ahead of her time.

  2. Ada was quite the lady. Pity she was sickly, but she lived a rich life.

  3. An interesting reply from Wikipedia, and yet history seems to be constantly updated by discoveries from earlier documents or other findings older than whoever or whatever document reported that particular accepted version of history. It appears to me that any current accepted version of history should be tied to a date of that version and then viewed according to the prejudices of that time. References are then necessary to define the time period of that documented version. Wiki must fear that readers will accept that reference note as gospel on the matter and not be smart enough to view it in light of any bias in that time period.

  4. RT, I find old documents fascinating. Speaking of… I saw another Dead Seas Scrolls cave has been found, but it's already been raided.

  5. Well I'm an historian, so I don't consider ANYTHING too old. And I love old documents, especially letters, diaries, etc. (You want to some real political infighting? Read the diaries of the Duc de Saint-Simon during the court of Louis XIV. For blood. And all they were fighting about was who got to sit down on a stool.)

    Ada was great. So was Emilie de Chatelet, the woman who taught Voltaire mathematics, and translated Newton's Principia from Latin into French (and whose translation is still the standard used).

  6. Fascinating post, Leigh. I won't pretend I followed all of it (I know nothing about the history of computers), but I enjoyed it.

  7. I hadn't given thought to what Byron looked like or what his childhood was like, or what made him mad, bad, and dangerous. I think he or someone in the family had an affair with a cousin or sister or something. I always assumed a wealthy background that out of upper class boredom led to rakish, devil-may-care, have-his-way-with-the-ladies attitude.

  8. Very interesting. I used to work with a librarian who had a doctorate in history. As I recall his PhD had studied prostitution in 18th century London. I once asked him to use the library's history funds to buy a book about World War II and he replied "That's not history. It's current events!"


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