Ada Lovelace was the first computer programmer, and a woman ahead of her time. Most may not know this, but I have a computer science diploma from Mount Royal College in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and one of my majors for my Bachelor of Commerce Degree is Management Information Systems. Even though I had computer science training I have never worked in the field. During my computer science studies, we learned about Charles Babbage, who designed a machine that would do many of the things that today’s computer does, and Ada Lovelace wrote the computer program for Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Lovelace was unable to test her computer program because it was never built. The machine was a century ahead of its time – the technology did not exist to build it. Lovelace made such a mark on the world that a day is named for her – Ada Lovelace Day.
Name: Ada Augusta King, Countess of Lovelace
Birth Date: December 1815 – November 1852
Job Functions: Early-nineteenth-century English mathematician and scientist
Field: Mathematics and Computer Science
Known For: First computer programmer, best known for her work with Charles Babbage, an early pioneer in computing machines.
Mentors: Charles Babbage, Mary Fairfax Somerville
Ada Lovelace was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron. Very shortly after Lovelace’s birth, her mother, an amateur mathematician left her husband. As an amateur mathematician, Lady Byron ensured that her daughter had a solid education by developing her intellect. Lovelace studied reading, grammar and spelling, arithmetic, music, geography, drawing, and French. When she was 17 years old, she met Charles Babbage at a party hosted by Mary Fairfax Somerville. At that party, Babbage was demonstrating how to use his Difference Engine, a prototype he had built to show the idea behind his Difference Engine concept. When Lovelace saw the machine, it was love at first sight. She studied the machine very closely until she understood how it worked.
After a failed attempt to elope with her teacher, Lovelace decided to focus on her education and decided to seriously study science. She was a very smart young lady and quickly outgrew her tutors, so she continued to teach herself. In addition to her self-education she corresponded with informal tutors such as mathematician Mary Somerville and improved her mathematical skills.
The following year she got married, and within the first four years of marriage, Lovelace had three children. She loved her children dearly, but lamented because she could not pursue her intellectual interests.
Her mother, Lady Byron, an amateur mathematician, and her husband, William King, Earl of Lovelace searched for ways for her to pursue her academic interests since her desire was so strong. Lady Byron and William King made it happen for Lovelace. In 1940, the year after the birth of her third child, Lovelace returned to her study of mathematics with Augustus De Morgan, a famous British logician and mathematician. She was an impressive and keen student because she had an affinity for the subject. During that same year, Charles Babbage whom she had met at a party a few years earlier, gave a series of talks in Turin, to scientists about his Difference Engine, and his new Analytical Engine, which could be programmed by encoding instructions on punched cards.
Luigi Federico Menabrea, an Italian military engineer, summarized Babbage’s series of talks in a French article in the journal Bibliothèque Universelle de Genève. It was very difficult for Menabrea to adequately describe how the machine would work because the Analytical Engine didn’t exist, so all he had to rely on were drawings of the machine. The article was subsequently published in 1942.
Through a family friend, Charles Wheatstone, developer of the electric telegraph, Lovelace learned about Luigi Menabrea’s article. Wheatstone wanted her to translate the article from French to English for the prestigious British journal Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs. Lovelace started her translation project with zeal. When Babbage learned of what Lovelace was doing, he wanted her to write an entirely new article instead. She declined his request, but offered to add extensive “Notes” to bring Menabrea’s article up-to-date. There were seven notes in all – labelled A through G and the added notations were three times the length of the original article.
Among other things, her “Notes” explained the differences between the Difference Engine and the new Analytical Engine, and other similar machines on the market. It also included detailed steps of how Babbage’s Analytical Engine worked, explained the concept of computer memory, and presented what is now known in computer programming as a loop or subroutine (If-Then-Else, Do-For). Lovelace introduced the idea of “garbage in, garbage out” (The output of the computer is only as good as its input) and also detailed how the machine could be programmed to compute the calculation of Bernoulli numbers (According to Wikipedia, Bernoulli numbers the sums of powers of consecutive integers; named after Swiss mathematician Jacques Bernoulli (1654–1705)). The detailed plan she outlined is now regarded as the first computer program.
Without the actual machine to study, to ensure success of her now expanded translation project, Lovelace used information and formulas supplied by Babbage to determine where the calculations would go into the machine and where the answers would be displayed. Since the machine did not exist, and was never built because the technology did not exist in the early 1800s to create such a machine, Lovelace couldn’t test her computer software program to determine if it worked. Her “Notes” has secured her a place in history, and Ada Lovelace is considered to be the first computer programmer.
Her ideas and deep insights in the “Notes” about the capabilities of an Analytical Engine became a reality in computers in the Twentieth Century, and that’s a testament that she had a solid understanding of the implications for Babbage’s invention. Much later after her death, her program was tested and it had a few bugs in it, but I am confident that had Lovelace had access to a working Analytical Engine, she would have been able to debug her computer program. It is worthy to note that based on the drawing and specifications of Babbage’s design, The London Science Museum later built the machine and it did exactly what Babbage wanted his Analytical Engine to do, which show s that his ideas were sound.
Babbage and Lovelace had a disagreement about publishing the manuscript. Even though they resolved their differences, they never worked together again. For the next few years, Lovelace focused on various fields of science, reading German books, and corresponding with prominent English scientists. Her only other big scientific contribution was a book review of a French book on meteorology and agriculture, which she wrote jointly with her husband.
What you can learn from Ada Lovelace
- Her ideas were over 100 years before their time.
- She went against traditional Victorian society by studying mathematics which was a discipline few women attempted.
- Lovelace knew how to work the system. Her husband who was 11 years her senior, was very supportive of her academic endeavours, though people of their class felt pursuing such interests were beneath them. To live in both worlds, Lovelace signed her Notes A.A.L. Thirty years after the paper was published her full name appeared as the paper’s author.
- She also predicted the use of mechanical mathematical devices for such purposes as music composition and the production of graphics.
- Lovelace’s tutors fostered her early interest in systems as well as her desire to understand how things worked.
Lovelace did not obtain widespread recognition until the historian, Lord B.V. Bowden, rediscovered her “Notes” in 1952 and had them reprinted the following year – 110 years after their original publication. In 1980, the United States Department of Defense named its Ada programming language after her.
Interesting Information: Even though Lord Byron didn’t get to see his daughter again after his wife left him, he wrote about her in some of his poems.
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: Canto the Third (excerpt)
George Gordon Lord Byron (1788-1824)
Is thy face like thy mother’s, my fair child!
Ada! sole daughter of my house and heart?
When last I saw thy young blue eyes they smil’d,
And then we parted–not as now we part,
But with a hope.–Awaking with a start,
The waters heave around me; and on high
The winds lift up their voices: I depart,
Whither I know not; but the hour’s gone by,
When Albion’s lessening shores could grieve or glad mine eye.
Source: http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poem/344.html (this link no longer works)
How can you use this information? What do you have to add to the conversation? Let’s keep the conversation flowing, please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.
Encyclopedia of World Biography
New Dictionary of Scientific Biography
Image Credit: Wikipedia
- Ada Lovelace Day: Celebrate Women in Technology (GeekDad Wayback Machine) (wired.com)
- Ada Lovelace Day of the Day (geeks.thedailywh.at)
- Wisdom of Life: Charles Babbage, Father of the Computer