The True Story of Ada

Essentially a political essay.

I Have a Feeling We're Not In Emerald City Anymore by Henry G. Baker or The True Story of Ada, his conjecture on why Ada was conceived to be inherently dysfunctional. A joke? Even in this case is so realistic...


[..] By piecing together information from unclassified documents, we are now able--for the first time--to bring you the real story of the Ada Project, whose secrecy, scope and cost rival those of the Manhattan Project. [..]

[..] the US was facing a `Software Gap' with the Soviets. According to [Davis78], the Soviets had "one of the most potent mathematical communities in the world":

To an unusual extent, software productivity is a research and development activity, and thus it benefits from a relative Soviet strength. ... Thus software would appear to have some relative advantages over hardware, even within the scope of Soviet R&D. ...One of the reasons mathematics has done so well in the Soviet Union is that it is relatively insensitive to the constraints [of high quality materials]... Software may have a similar advantage as long as it can operate within local hardware limitations. [Davis78; emphasis supplied]

Although Soviet computer hardware was inferior, particularly in memory technology (typical Soviet computers had only a few hundred Kbytes of core and a few tens of Mbytes of disk), Soviet software ingenuity might make their hardware disadvantage moot:

The availability of ES hardware has resulted in something of a ... software explosion... [Davis78]

Even more troubling were reports of incredible software productivity from US projects using languages like Lisp, APL, Prolog, Smalltalk and Forth. Entire robotic planning systems with natural language and graphics interfaces were programmed by just one or two people in Lisp. Reams of PL/I code were replaced by a single line of APL. Prolog obsoleted a generation of Cobol programmers. Smalltalk and Logo were taught to children, and raised the spectre of a 12-year-old outproducing a dozen beltway bandits. Perhaps most troubling of all was Forth, with its ability to very quickly program substantial real-time systems that took insignificant amounts of memory.

This software "productivity explosion" threatened the very axiom of American military might--that more is better, and a whole lot more is a whole lot better. Software productivity was expanding faster than software demand, and the trends predicted that by 1997 entire avionics systems would be programmed by a single hacker in sandals, love beads and a pony tail. It looked like a handful of Soviet super-programmers using these powerful new languages might wipe out any advantage from American hardware prowess.

The American military could not afford to ignore this Soviet software threat. Although the massive post-Sputnik spending to upgrade American education had produced some early success, SAT scores soon peaked and began a sickening decline. Joe Geek might not be able to compete mano-a-mano with Ivan Geek.


Even knowledge of the Ada Project's name required the highest clearances and a need-to-know. The code name itself was an inside joke: Ada Augusta, Countess of Lovelace, was a famous armchair programmer/system architect who never in her entire life had gotten a single program to compile, link, or run. {An analogous joke would be giving an Air Force plane the name "Kiwi," after a flightless bird.} Ada's code name was finally declassified--extensive research had shown that no one ever got the inside joke. {`Project Ada' was not the first name suggested; `Project Potemkin' was rejected when it was realized that Soviets might recognize this old Russian ruse.}


We now know that the Ada Project was very successful. Ivan accepted the Ada wizards' humbuggering at face value. At the time of the Fall of Communism, a number of Soviet Ada projects were under way, and afterwards, at least one Soviet Ada compiler was offered for commercial sale over the Internet.

Now that the Wicked Witch of the East is dead, the wizards have finally allowed Ada to evolve into Ada9X, which fixed some of Ada's more egregious dysfunctions. However, even today the brilliance of Ada's original conception still shines brightly through.

That the Ada Project was able to keep its secret for 20 years is a tribute to the dedication and resourcefulness of the wizards of Ada. It wasn't easy being Green--those associated with the Ada Project withstood great criticism and still managed to keep a straight face. The Ada Project cost billions and billions in direct and indirect costs, but who can argue with the result? All of us owe a great debt of gratitude to those in the Ada Project who helped keep America free. We agree with Churchill: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."


The Cold War is gone but... [more to come]

This page is linked from: Ada