Ada Lovelace: harbinger of the modern computer
August 5, 2020
Ada Lovelace(1815-1852), the ‘Enchantress of Numbers’, was born Augusta Ada Byron, the only legitimate child of Annabella Milbanke and the poet Lord Byron. Ada has been called ‘the first computer programmer’ for writing an algorithm for a computing machine in the mid-1800s and is mainly known for her work with Charles Babbage on his Analytical Engine.
Her mother, Lady Byron, had mathematical training herself, and insisted that Lovelace be tutored privately in mathematics as well, which was an unusual education for a woman at the time. This study was furthered by the introduction of Lovelace to Mary Somerville, who was known as the ‘Queen of 19th Century Science’ and was the first woman to be accepted into the Royal Astronomical Society.
In June 1833 Lovelace was introduced to Charles Babbage, known as ‘the father of computers’ by Mary Somerville whilst he was working on an ‘Analytical Engine’ that was designed to handle complex calculations and Babbage demonstrated a small working section of the Engine to Lovelace. Lovelace became further involved in 1843 when she was asked to translate an article written in French by an Italian engineer, Luigi Menabrea, on the engine into English. Lovelace not only translated the article but tripled its length,adding pages and pages of notes, calculations and ideas. In her notes, Lovelace described how codes could be created for the device to handle letters and symbols along with numbers. She also theorized a method for the engine to repeat a series of instructions, a process known as looping that computer programs use today, which led to Lovelace often being referred to as 'the first programmer'. She was the first to express the potential for computers outside mathematics and her mindset of "poetical science" led her to ask questions about the Analytical Engine (as shown in her notes) examining how individuals and society relate to technology as a collaborative tool. Ada was not actually given credit for the article until 1848.
Babbage only built a small part of the Analytical Engine, which was never completed, but Lovelace’s efforts have been remembered. Lovelace was such an accomplished mathematician and programmer that her notes, all written in the early to mid-1800s,were used by Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing when he was designing the first computer. Since then, Lovelace has received many posthumous honours for her work; In 1980, the U.S. Department of Defence named a newly developed computer language "Ada," after Lovelace, and the second Tuesday in October has become Ada Lovelace Day, on which the contributions of women to science,technology, engineering, and mathematics are honoured.
Lovelace died from uterine cancer in London on November 27, 1852.