Ada Lovelace Day is an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
But, who was she? Well, she was the World’s first Computer Programmer. The woman most often known as ‘Ada Lovelace’ was born Ada Gordon in 1815, sole child of the brief and tempestuous marriage of the erratic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, and his mathematics-loving wife Annabella Milbanke.
Fearing that Ada would inherit her father’s volatile ‘poetic’ temperament, her mother raised her under a strict regimen of science, logic, and mathematics. Ada herself from childhood had a fascination with machines– designing fanciful boats and steam flying machines, and poring over the diagrams of the new inventions of the Industrial Revolution that filled the scientific magazines of the time.
At the age of 19 she was married to an aristocrat, William King; when King was made Earl of Lovelace in 1838 his wife became Lady Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. She is generally called Ada Lovelace, which is a little incorrect but saves confusion! She had three children.
in 1833, Lovelace’s mentor, the scientist and polymath Mary Sommerville, introduced her to Charles Babbage, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics who had already attained considerable celebrity for his visionary and perpetually unfinished plans for gigantic clockwork calculating machines. Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace both had somewhat unconventional personalities and became close and lifelong friends. Babbage described her as “that Enchantress who has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects could have exerted over it,” or an another occasion, as “The Enchantress of Numbers”.
The Analytical Engine
Lovelace was deeply intrigued by Babbage’s plans for a tremendously complicated device he called the Analytical Engine, which was to combine the array of adding gears of his earlier Difference Engine with an elaborate punchcard operating system. It was never built, but the design had all the essential elements of a modern computer.
In 1842 Lovelace translated a short article describing the Analytical Engine by the italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea, for publication in England. Babbage asked her to expand the article, “as she understood the machine so well”. The final article is over three times the length of the original and contains several early ‘computer programs,’ as well as strikingly prescient observations on the potential uses of the machine, including the manipulation of symbols and creation of music. Although Babbage and his assistants had sketched out programs for his engine before, Lovelace’s are the most elaborate and complete, and the first to be published; so she is often referred to as “the first computer programmer”. Babbage himself “spoke highly of her mathematical powers, and of her peculiar capability — higher he said than of any one he knew, to prepare the descriptions connected with his calculating machine.”
Ada Lovelace died of cancer at 36, a few short years after the publication of “Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator”.
The Analytical Engine remained a vision, until Lovelace’s notes became one of the critical documents to inspire Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computers in the 1940s.
Her thwarted potential, and her passion and vision for technology, have made her a powerful symbol for modern women in technology.