On Tuesday, October 10, take a few moments to honor Lady Ada Lovelace, an early Victorian mathematician hailed as the world’s first computer programmer. Established in 2009, Ada Lovelace Day celebrates women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Ada Lovelace’s own brief STEM career quietly planted the seeds of modern computing, but her ideas were a century ahead of their time and her work is sometimes minimized or dismissed. More than 160 years after her death at age 36, Ada Lovelace stands as an icon of computer science and a symbol for women who struggle for professional respect and recognition.
Ada Lovelace Day (ALD) was started after its founder realized there were few, if any, women speakers at technology conferences. She also learned that research showed women need female role models more than men need male role models.
“I launched a pledge saying that I would write a blog post about a woman in technology on March 24, 2009 if another 1,000 people would join me,” explains Suw (pronounced “Sue”) Charman-Anderson, a British web developer and social media professional. “In the end, we had nearly 4,000 people signed up to the pledge or on Facebook, and the day developed from there.”
Held on the second Tuesday of October, ALD events around the world often include tech lectures and seminars, STEM-related making, gaming and hack fests, and Wikipedia “edit-a-thons” where participants add or expand pages about women in STEM. Its global scope, Ms. Charman-Anderson says, “makes us all feel like we’re part of something bigger, a huge movement to support and inspire women and girls to study and pursue a career in STEM.”
Ada Lovelace entered the STEM arena at a time when many people believed women lacked the intellectual and physical fortitude for math and science. Born Augusta Ada Byron in 1815, Ada had beauty, a noble pedigree, and social grace — traits that high-born English girls were expected to parlay into marriage and motherhood. Yet she was also curious, intelligent, and well trained in science and math, which set her apart from other young women.
Her mother, Lady Annabella Byron, pressed a rigorous education on Ada, specifically to inhibit any wild or artistic tendencies the girl might have inherited from her father, the poet Lord Byron. Lady Byron had fled the marriage when Ada was an infant because she thought her husband was going mad. Ada and her famous father never saw each other again, and he died when she was eight years old.
Lady Byron, herself highly educated in science and math, introduced Ada to many of England’s intellectual and academic elite, such as Charles Dickens and Michael Faraday. Some became Ada’s tutors, including astronomer and science writer Mary Somerville (known as the “Queen of Nineteenth Century Science”), and noted mathematics professor Augustus De Morgan.
The Machine That Made a Difference
While young Ada sharpened her math skills, the inventor Charles Babbage was building his Difference Engine — a large mechanical calculator designed to generate numeric tables based on Isaac Newton’s method of “divided differences.” Using government grants, Babbage built a tabletop version of the machine, with gleaming columns of numbered brass cogs powered by a hand crank. He held frequent parties to demonstrate its calculating ability to hundreds of guests and potential investors.
At one such party, 17-year-old Ada became fascinated with the machine, quickly displaying an understanding of its operation and value that most of Babbage’s contemporaries could not. Within a few years, the two began a prodigious correspondence that led to their well-chronicled professional collaboration.
Ada and the Analytical Engine
Marriage to William King-Noel, 1st Earl of Lovelace, and the birth of their three children occupied Lady Ada Lovelace’s life for the next decade. But in 1842, she seized the chance to work with Babbage on his next invention: the Analytical Engine, an enormous steam-powered mechanical computer.
The Analytical Engine would act on the conditional branching statements, or “if-then logic,” that define modern computing. (For example, “If this statement is true, then do A, otherwise do B.”) Its thousands of cogs, wheels, and levers would enable it to compute, print, and store data in memory. It would be programmed by strings of punch cards like those being used at the time to weave patterned fabric on Jacquard looms. Its programmability made the Analytical Engine the first “general purpose computer” — one that can perform an unlimited variety of computing tasks.
Babbage designed the Analytical Engine to work strictly with numbers, but Ada saw its potential to process all manner of data. She suggested that words and symbols could replace numbers to compute a wider range of outcomes — even musical compositions. “The engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent,” Ada wrote in her only published paper, the translation of another scientist’s paper. “The Analytical Engine does not occupy common ground with mere ‘calculating machines.’ It holds a position wholly its own, and the considerations it suggests are more interesting in their nature.”
Translating papers was one way Victorian women could participate in science, so Ada translated engineering professor Luigi Menabrea’s “Sketch of the Analytical Engine” from French to English. She also extensively annotated her translation with seven “Notes,” describing in scrupulous detail how the machine would work both technically and mathematically. Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs, a reputable scientific journal, published the translated article and Ada’s Notes, which were signed merely “A. A. L.” to mask her gender.
Ada’s Algorithm: Did She or Didn’t She?
In Note G, Ada describes the steps required for the Analytical Engine to compute a unique series of numbers called Bernoulli Numbers. She specifies how punch cards would be programmed for the operation, and what the results should be after running them through the Engine. She also created an intricate numerical diagram of her written steps.
Many believe Ada’s step-by-step explanation constitutes an algorithm — the coded instructions in computer programs. As such, Ada is popularly credited with writing and publishing the first computer program.
Historians, mathematicians, and computer scientists have debated Ada’s claim to computing fame. Some doubt she possessed sufficient math skills to generate the Note’s complex formulas, and whether Note G constitutes a true algorithm. They argue that Babbage wrote and discussed programming for the Analytical Engine, although he never published any such work. Some even use an alleged marital affair, her self confidence and moods, drug use (to treat multiple medical issues), and gambling debts to discredit her scientific credibility.
Others refer to the voluminous correspondence between Ada and Babbage which document her command of math and computing, her attention to technical accuracy on the Notes, and the extent of Babbage’s contributions (or lack thereof). Babbage openly acknowledged in his autobiography that the translation and Notes reflected Ada’s deep understanding of the Analytical Engine, writing, “Their author has entered fully into almost all the very difficult and abstract questions connected with the subject.” He never claimed any of Ada’s published ideas as his own, at a time when he could easily have done so.
A Promising Science Career Cut Short
Babbage’s government funding for the Analytical Engine dried up in 1843, so the huge, expensive machine would never be built. And later that year, shortly before Ada’s translation and Notes were published, Babbage flatly rejected her impassioned request to take the lead in managing and promoting the Engine. It effectively ended their working relationship and the science career Ada desperately wanted to nurture, although they remained friends and scientific confidantes until her death from cancer in 1852.
The Lovelace Legacy
Ada’s body of work remained dormant until computer pioneer Alan Turing invoked what he dubbed “Lady Lovelace’s Objection” about computer learning in his 1950 paper, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Ada gradually reentered the public consciousness and her contributions to modern computer science became known, validated, and honored.
In 1980, the United States Department of Defense named a programming language Ada, which replaced nearly 450 other programming languages. It is still used in military, aircraft, spacecraft, air traffic control, railway, and banking systems. And the British Computer Society awards its annual Lovelace Medal to “individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to the understanding or advancement of Computing.”
Other organizations paying homage to Ada Lovelace include: Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology; Ada – the National College for Digital Skills, in London; the Ada Developers Academy in Seattle; Adafruit.com, a computing and electronics catalog; and The Ada Initiative, created in response to women being sexually harassed and assaulted at technology conferences.
The Poetical Scientist
Ada Lovelace described herself as an “Analyst & Metaphysician” specializing in “poetical science,” weaving together science and imagination. As a child, she dreamed of flying, and drafted plans for a steam-driven flying horse. She approached mathematics both practically and spiritually. “Mathematical science shows what is,” she wrote. “It is the language of unseen relations between things. But to use and apply that language, we must be able fully to appreciate, to feel, to seize the unseen, the unconscious.” Despite her mother’s best efforts, Ada may well have inherited some of Lord Byron’s creativity.
Ada clearly hoped to be remembered for her uniquely intelligent and creative mind. “That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal, as time will show,” she wrote. With the number of tributes honoring her work today, that appears to be so.