Ada Lovelace Day: Celebrating a Computer Pioneer and Tech Hero
Ada Lovelace Day, March 24: A tribute to the Enchantress of Numbers - Celebrating Women in Technology
Ada Lovelace was a rare bird - there were very few women involved in math and science in the 19th century but rarer still she was a pioneer in the world of computers, being credited with helping to create the world's first computer program around 1842.
Ada Lovelace and the Analytical Engine
Ada Lovelace was working with British mathematician Charles Babbage, documenting work being done on what was called the analytical engine. - the design for a 19th machine which helped lay the groundwork for the modern computer. Lovelace described an important algorithm that was reportedly designed for the engine - essentially an early computer program.
Ada Lovelace Background
Ada Lovelace, or more precisely, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace was the daughter of poet Lord Byron and Annabella Millbank. An only child, Ada Lovelace was nine years old when her famous father died. A regular at Court Ada acquired the name Lovelace with her 1835 marriage to William King, who would become 1st Earl of Lovelace. The couple settled in Surrey with Lovelace having their children.
Ada Lovelace: The world's first computer programmer?
Ada Lovelace had known Charles Babbage for years, since she was only 17 years old and started corresponding with the Babbage on science and mathematics. But Lovelace only started working with him after her marriage, translating and documenting work for the analytical engine. Charles Babbage's apparently referred to her as The Enchantress of Numbers but she did not receive much formal credit for her work on Babbage's project.
There is some debate about how much of a contribution Ada Lovelace made to the analytical engine. The volume and extensiveness of her notes regarding the algorithm but increasingly it seems her vital contribution is becoming acknowledged.
Dorothy Stein, author of Ada: A Life and a Legacy, contends that the programs were mostly written by Babbage himself. Babbage wrote the following on the subject, in his Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1846):
I then suggested that she add some notes to Menabrea's memoir, an idea which was immediately adopted. We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced: I suggested several but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process.
Judging from that passage Ada Lovelace clearly had strong understanding of the math and made a critical contribution as well. Furthermore, she also may have devised some of the very first punch cards which were used in the early days of computer programming and she had a clarity of insight into how computers would work. In fact the Institute of Science and Technology in London calls her the world's first computer programmer (see video).
The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis, but it has no power of anticipating any analytical revelations or truths. Its province is to assist us in making available what we are already acquainted with.
Ada Lovelace died of uterine cancer in 1852. Her impact was not really acknowledge until the about a 100 years after her death when her notes were re-published. In 1980 the United States Department of Defense name its computer language Ada.
In 2009 a movement was started to recognize Women in Technology - Ada Lovelace emerged as a popular choice to have a day recognized after her.
"For years I've worked in technology, and every time you see a list of the top people in tech, it's dominated by men," said Suw Charman-Anderson, who created Ada Lovelace Day in 2009 and runs the annual event.
"There's always a discussion about where the women in technology are. I thought, I know loads of women in technology. Why are we asking where they are?"