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March marks Women’s History Month and to celebrate this I’m going to be writing about some of the most important women in the history of tech.
Today, to start us off, I’m delving into the life and work of Ada Lovelace, famously named the ‘first computer programmer’.
Ada Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron in London on December the 10th, 1815. She was born to her parents, Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke, who had a short marriage as they separated just 2 months after she was born. Her father was a famed poet and her mother was a trained mathematician. Lord Byron actually fled the UK once he was separated so Lovelace never really knew him personally. Her mother was worried that she would inherit her father’s poetic (read: volatile) temperament so she raised her with a strict regimen where she was privately tutored in mathematics, science and logic. In those times this was an unusual education for a woman.
A quick segway to explain where the name ‘Ada Lovelace’ came from;
When she was 19 she married an aristocrat named William King. When he was made Earl of Lovelace in 1838 she became Lady Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, hence the name Ada Lovelace.
Ada Lovelace is known to have been a close and lifelong friend of Charles Babbage, the professor of mathematics who had already gained a somewhat celebrity status due to his visionary and unfinished plans for gigantic clockwork calculating machines. Lovelace was introduced to Babbage in 1833 by her mentor and scientist Mary Sommerville. Both Babbage and Lovelace had ‘unconventional’ personalities and grew close, Babbage had 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,” and the “enchantress of numbers”.
Lovelace took great interest in Babbage’s ‘Analytical Engine’, which added a punchcard operating system to his earlier ‘Difference Engine’. The ‘Analytical Engine’ was never actually built but its design had all the key elements of a modern computer.
Their friendship became noteworthy when, in 1842, Lovelace translated and annotated an article written by Luigi Federico Menabrea, Italian mathematician and engineer. The article was called “Notions sur la machine analytique de Charles Babbage” (“Elements of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Machine”). Babbage had asked Lovelace to expand on the article as “she understood the machine so well”. The final article was three times the length of the original and contained many early ‘computer programs’. She made important farsighted observations for the potential uses of the machine, including the creation of music. She said that the engine “might act upon other things besides number” and that it might compose elaborate pieces of music. This, from a modern viewpoint, was visionary. Lovelace’s detailed plans for programs for the engine were far more detailed and complete than the ones Babbage and his assistants had done beforehand. Hers were the first to be published, which is why she is often referred to as the ‘first computer programmer’. Babbage spoke highly of her mathematical talent, saying that her capability of describing and predicting future use of the calculating machine was higher than anyone else he knew. Babbage had the technical knowledge and ingenuity, but Lovelace propelled his invention into more modern days of computing. It was because of this foresight and her ability to see the machine’s true potential that Babbage called her “Lady Fairy”.
Ada Lovelace died from cancer at age 36, a few years after the publication of “Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator”. But the impact of her work has lasted through the times.
Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine was a mere vision until Lovelace’s notes inspired Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computers in the 1940s. Her vision and passion for mathematics and technology have earned her one of the top spots as a powerful symbol, not just for women in tech, but for technology as a whole.
In the late 1970s the software language ‘Ada’ was created by the Department of Defence in her honour. The second Tuesday in October has also become Ada Lovelace Day, when contributions of women to STEM are honoured.
“Who was Ada Lovelace?”. Padua, S. Oct 2021
“Ada Lovelace, the first tech visionary”. Morais, B. Oct 2013
computerhistory.org/babbage/adalovelace. Accessed Feb 2022
“Ada Loveleace: The first computer programmer”. Cellania, M. Oct 2015
“Who was Ada Lovelace?”. Smith, K. Oct 2018