By Elyzabeth Gorman
What do you do if your dad is a famous bad boy poet and your mum is a strict mathematician? You invent computer programming, of course! Meet Ada Lovelace.
Who is she?
Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, is the only daughter of British social reformer Lady Anne Isabella Byron and Lord George Gordon Byron, the renowned poet who was famously described as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.
Ada's mother would’ve agreed with that statement, as she divorced him shortly after Ada’s birth. She then strictly monitored her daughter’s tutoring to be sure nothing of Byron emerged in her daughter. Ada married at 19 and her husband eventually became Earl of Lovelace, the surname by which she’s known today.
What did she do?
Ada Lovelace was the first person to describe computer programming – and she did it in 1843. That’s 93 years before Alan Turing proposed the computer, 100 years before ENIAC (the grandfather of digital computers) was built, and 110 years before another inspirational TEC Woman, Grace Hopper, developed the first computer language.
How in the world…?
Let me explain. No, there’s too much. Let me sum up. Ada’s maths tutor Mary Somerville – one of the first women to be nominated to the Royal Astronomical Society – introduced her to Charles Babbage, who’d received buckets of money from the government to build a mechanical computer called an Analytical Engine.
(Imagine trying to build a scientific calculator without electricity, and you’ll get the general idea.)
Babbage was a brilliant guy who had great ideas, but poor follow-through and worse people skills. Ada was fascinated by the possibilities of the complex calculations the machine would be able to do. She had the social connections and charm to buy time with the increasingly irritated government officials who’d spent thousands on Babbage’s project, but who remained empty-handed.
When was her breakthrough?
Ada helped Babbage to develop the Analytical Engine, but it was her translation of an 1843 publication that first brought her own ideas to light.
Babbage had given a lecture in Turin on his ideas, and the future Italian Prime Minister (seriously) published his notes on the lecture in a Swiss journal. Ada offered to translate the article, and ended up writing a footnote that was several times longer than the article itself.
Among her ideas were that the numbers being manipulated by the Analytical Engine could represent anything and that the algorithms held complex calculations but not intelligence.
She also developed an algorithm that would predict Bernoulli numbers, which is considered by many to be the first computer program.
Where did her ideas come from?
Her mother would have been appalled, but Ada’s gift was the combination of her father’s creativity and her mother’s mental rigour.
Her maths skills and intellectual prowess were vital to her understanding of the machine and the theorems she developed. The skills she’d been forced to learn as a woman in society helped her navigate Babbage’s cantankerous personality and the obstacles in their way. Her creativity allowed her to see new uses for a mathematical machine, ones no one else could envision.
Why does Ada's story matter?
Computing power is the defining might of the 21st century, so it’s good to know how we got here. More importantly, women like Ada were crucial to the development of computer programming. You have to work hard to exclude women from the history of coding, but that’s what some people have done.
Like many women in history, questions are asked of Ada’s legacy, and romantic rumours about her are asserted as fact. (Stay away from Wikipedia!) In researching this, I even heard a BBC radio programme deny that Ada was the intellectual forebear of computer programming – even as it described Alan Turing, the grandfather of AI, using her notes as an intellectual sparring partner in his ideas.
Ada, like all innovators, was part of a chain of invention. She built on the work of others to propose something revolutionary. Others then used her work to inspire their own. We should try to follow her lead – we’re all already standing on her shoulders!
Find out more about Ada
Dive deeper into the story of Ada and the invention of the computer with this BBC documentary: Calculating Ada - The Countess of Computing
About the author
Elyzabeth Gorman is a writer and research junkie with a passion for details. She comes from a creative storytelling background, using writing structure and specific descriptions to help readers understand new ideas, enter new worlds, or see through a stranger’s eyes. After moving to Amsterdam from New York, she became so entranced with Dutch history that she created a city tour based on Amsterdam’s hidden stories.
Find out more about Elyzabeth at https://elyzabethgorman.com/about-me/