Ada and Abbie: The Difference Engines

Aquila Magazine for children, November 2016. 

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Ada and Abbie: The Difference Engines

Engineer Abbie Hutty’s job is to build a vehicle that will be sent into space to look for life on Mars. Things have changed a lot since Ada Lovelace became the first computer programmer 200 years ago, in a time when women weren’t supposed to study science.

Science can’t get very far without imagination – before we can create new things, we need to dream them up. But once we have the idea, we need scientists to actually create the fantastical devices from our imaginations. You can’t have one without the other.

Right now, a team of engineers is hard at work preparing to send a rocket to Mars – they have four years to get everything ready. Curiosity is what’s driving us: is there life on Mars? But what’s making it possible to actually go and find out is the work of scientists like Abbie Hutty. She’s a Senior Spacecraft Structures Engineer at Airbus, where she’s in charge of designing the body of the ExoMars rover. That’s the little car that will be sent on a nine month journey through space, before setting down on Mars to explore and look for life.

“I lead a team of specialist engineers, and together we design the structure, choose materials, do lots of testing, and make sure everything about the rover’s body will work perfectly on Mars,” says Abbie. When the rover gets to Mars there won’t be anyone to fix it if anything goes wrong, so it’s a very important job: “I have about 20 people working for me, and some of them are much older than me,” says Abbie, who’s just 29 years old – it’s unusual to be in charge of a team like this at her age.

Abbie’s position is even more unusual when you consider that most engineers are men. Out of all the people working in the STEM professions – that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – only 14 out of every 100 are women, according to the Office of National Statistics. But anyone can work in STEM: “I always liked making things,” says Abbie, when asked what kind of interests she had as a kid. “It didn’t really matter what it was, from biscuits to marble runs to knitting with my gran – I enjoyed the thrill of seeing an idea made into reality. I always liked science too: learning about nature, the world and the universe, and how it all works.”

Ada Lovelace, prophet of the computer age

ada-abbie-1Abbie got to where she is today by going to university: she has a degree in Mechanical Engineering. But things weren’t always so easy for women who were interested in the sciences. When Ada Lovelace was born in 1815, her mother decided she should learn about mathematics, which was an unusual thing to teach a girl at the time. Ada went on to become the world’s first computer programmer – that’s incredible when considering there weren’t actually any computers around. That meant Ada didn’t just have to come up with computer programmes, but she pretty much had to dream up the idea of a computer too.

When Abbie first became interested in engineering, some of her friends, and even some teachers, were confused. Why would a young girl want to become an engineer? Many people don’t actually know what engineers do, says Abbie: “A lot of them thought engineers were the same as mechanics, and thought I’d be fixing people’s cars! But I explained what I’d found out: engineering is all about designing new technology, and using creative and technical skills to make new things and solve global problems.”

That sounded great to Abbie, whose favourite subjects were art and design technology, plus she was good at maths and science.” She still remembers the moment when she saw on the news that British engineers were working on a mission to Mars, called Beagle 2: “I thought: ‘Wow! If engineers make cool things like missions to Mars, then I want to be an engineer!’”

200 years ago, girls would be told they were better off staying away from intellectual matters, but Ada didn’t listen. When she was 17, Ada met Charles Babbage, a professor of mathematics who’d invented a complex calculating machine called the Difference Engine. Fascinated, Ada wrote to Charles and asked him to be her mentor. This marked the beginning of a lifelong professional collaboration and friendship.

When Charles was working on a new calculating machine he called an Analytical Engine, he asked if Ada could translate a mathematical paper about it, from the original French. Ada took to the task with gusto, adding so many notes that the translation was four times as long as the original text. Ada’s proposed that the Analytical Engine could be used to read symbols, not just numbers, and that it could be programmed with code. Ada’s translation is now considered the world’s first algorithm for a machine, making her the world’s first computer programmer. Ada’s ideas were visionary: she understood that the machine could be more than just a fancy calculator – it could be an all-purpose computing device that could be used to solve all sorts of problems.

The poetry of science

ada-abbie-2Being good at maths isn’t enough to make a breakthrough like this – it requires a good dollop of creativity. Ada’s mother had been the one to insist she learn maths, but Ada had inherited an artistic temperament from the father she never met: Lord Byron, the famous, passionate poet. Ada herself called this powerful combination a “poetical science”.  

Working on the ExoMars rover, Abbie has also found she needs to be creative: she collaborates with people from all over the world as they work out exactly how to push humanity further out into space. “I love seeing something that was once just an idea in my head becoming real and taking shape. Then, knowing that one day it will land on a planet that no human has ever set foot on, is just incredible!,” says Abbie. There’s a shortage of engineers in the UK so we need to get more kids interested – both girls and boys: “We have lots of big challenges to solve, like climate change, green energy, getting clean water to the developing world, reaching new planets. We want people who have had lots of different experiences and learnt different things to come together to solve these problems,” says Abbie.

Abbie admires Ada Lovelace for being very smart, and she also has a lot of respect for Donna Shirley, the engineer who led the team that built the Sojourner Mars rover. That was the very first robotic rover to explore another planet 19 years ago. “It’s a real shame that a lot of women scientists and engineers historically have not been recognised or remembered in the same way as men,” says Abbie. Everyone who works in computer technology now knows that Ava was a true visionary, but she was largely ignored during her lifetime. Many women never get re-discovered like Ava was, and this is a shame, says Abbie: “Inspirational women are an inspiration to everyone – not just girls. All of us are missing out on knowing about half of the inspirational people from history.”

Asked what she wants to do after the ExoMars rover is finished, Abbie says she wants to keep working on groundbreaking projects: “Now that I’ve had a taste of working on a mission to another planet, I don’t want to give it up!” Maybe that means working on other Mars missions: “But there are also missions planned to go to other interesting planets and moons in our solar system. Like the icy moons of Jupiter – we think they might have life in the oceans.” That’s the imagination part done – now we need more engineers like Abbie to figure out how to get us there.

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