The women who shaped science: Ada Lovelace – The first programmer

Ada Augusta Byron, the Countess of Lovelace, was born in London on December 10th 1815. She was the daughter of the celebrated English poet Lord Byron and Lady Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron. Her father moved away shortly after Ada’s birth when her parents separated. Her mother Lady Byron, who was a mathematician, brought her up. Ada had an unconventional upbringing for a noble woman of her time, encouraged to study science and mathematics, fields which were exclusively reserved for men. Ada met Charles Babbage when she was 17, a mathematician and inventor who served as a professor at the University of Cambridge. Babbage and Ada became good friends exchanging correspondence on a variety of scientific topics. In 1835 she married William King, from which she gained the title of Countess of Lovelace, and with which she had three children.

 "Ada Lovelace portrait" by Alfred Edward Chalon - Science & Society Picture Library
“Ada Lovelace portrait” by Alfred Edward Chalon. Source: Science and Society Picture Library

During this time, Babbage had created the Difference Engine, a machine that could perform calculations of polynomial functions. It was an automatic mechanical calculator that could perform calculations based on arithmetical addition. He then began plans to create a second machine called the Analytical Engine, which would be able to perform all four arithmetic functions. The user could input programs through a system of punch cards and the machine would compute the information through a unit called “the mill”. The Analytical Engine also included a storage device and could output results via a rudimentary printer system. Babbage never built the machine, but his extensive designs described in great detail how it would work. Italian mathematician Louis Menebrea wrote a memoir in French explaining Babbage’s vision, which was translated to English by Lovelace.

Babbage's Analytical Engine, Science Museum London. Source: Science and Society Picture Library
Babbage’s Analytical Engine, Science Museum London. Source: Science and Society Picture Library

In her writings, Ada included vast notes discussing the Analytical Engine in which she described its potential uses for complex mathematical calculations, writing, creating music and anticipated the potential of computing machines as limitless scientific tools. In her notes she included an algorithm that could be used by the Analytical Engine to calculate Bernoulli numbers. The algorithm has been proven to work if the machine had ever been built, effectively becoming the first computer program ever written. Although her writings were positively received, Ada was forced to use the pseudonym “A.A.L.” in order to conceal her identity. In the 1840s Ada developed an addiction to opiates and gambling. She was also the target of affair rumors due to the many male friendships she gained while attempting to develop a mathematical system to win at gambling. She gambled away most of her fortune which irreparably damaged her relationship with her husband. Ada died of uterine cancer on November 27th 1852 at the age of 36.

Although her contributions were greatly overlooked until the 1950s, she is now recognized as a visionary. She saw far beyond the potential of the Analytical Engine that Babbage had imagined. Her now famous notes on Babbage’s work are recognized as the first description of a modern computer and software. The US Department of Defense named their computer language “Ada” in honor of Lovelace. The British Computer Society holds an annual computational competition for women in her honor. October 15th is “Ada Lovelace Day”, an international celebration where numerous institutions hold events to celebrate not only Ada’s contributions, but also achievements in STEM fields by women around the world. A woman ahead of her time, Ava Lovelace was truly an innovator and her contributions will inspire generations of women in science to come.

Editor: Cyndi Morales

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