Ada Lovelace Day pays homage to the “first computer programmer”

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Someone who encounters an “analysis engine” today would probably think of it as part of a mechanical system for a weird car – or maybe some obscure telegraph machine or some sort of eccentric musical instrument. We probably wouldn’t recognize this jumble of pins and cogs like the world’s first computer. Although a working model was never completed, the design of the English mathematician Charles Babbage, first described in 1837, was extraordinary. And it had parallels with the modern computer, like its “mill” – what we would now call a central processing unit.

Back then, there was a curious and imaginative mind that recognized the potential of the strange machine as a concept. In 1843, self-taught mathematician Ada Lovelace published an article that detailed how the analytical engine worked and envisioned the type of large-scale tasks she imagined it could perform. She is, through her annotations on the calculating machine, widely considered to have made a great contribution to the field of computing and is now an inspiring symbol for women scientists. In 2009, Suw Charman-Anderson, former executive director of the London-based nonprofit Open Rights Group, designated the second Tuesday in October (a date chosen arbitrarily) as Ada Lovelace Day to celebrate women’s achievements. in mathematics, science and engineering.

Lovelace lived a short but consistent life. Born in 1815 to a well-known aristocratic family, she was initially famous for being the daughter of the English poet Lord Byron, who called Lovelace’s mother, Annabella Byron, the “Princess of Parallelograms” for her love for mathematics. Their marriage was short-lived, and Lord Byron passed away from their lives when Lovelace was a child. Annabella, terrified that Ada could develop romance with her father’s head in the clouds, forbade her daughter from reading Lord Byron’s poetry and instead surrounded the child with mathematics.

It worked. She grew her head in a book, studying and questioning algebra and geometry, and showing a growing fascination with machines. At 17, she and her mother attended an event where Lovelace first met Babbage. He was demonstrating the prototype of his “difference engine,” a simpler precursor to the analytical engine. The prototype was designed to calculate values ​​based on a formula, reducing the manual work required to create tables. The idea sparked Lovelace’s fascination with machines, and she began to understand everything about the engine of difference. As an adult, she had several mentors, including mathematician Augustus De Morgan, who taught her in 1840 and 1841 through an exchange of 63 letters. De Morgan was patient and kind, answering questions that had intrigued Lovelace, filling in the gaps in her mathematical knowledge. In a letter to Annabella, he noted the remarkable “thinking power” of the young mathematician, saying he was “quite unusual for any beginner, male or female.”

These discussions provided material for an article published in August 2017 in Mathematical Historia, presenting evidence of Lovelace’s mathematical prowess and countering claims by some historians that her story may have been overestimated and that she may not have had enough mathematical knowledge to have written the notes for her article on the Analytical Engine , the feat for which she is best known.

In 1843, Ada translated an article into French written on Babbage’s machine, including its annotations, which were almost twice as long as the article itself. These included a detailed description of how the machine worked, including how paper punch cards could be used to adjust machine settings. Lovelace also dwelled on the possibility of using the device to compose music. And the notes then showed how such a calculator might be able to calculate a series of numbers that frequently appear in higher arithmetic, called Bernoulli numbers – a process some might call the world’s first computer program. His ideas overwhelmed Babbage. In a letter to his friend and English scientist Michael Faraday, he called her “that Enchantress who has cast her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and seized it with a force that few male minds (in our country at least) could have exercised. above.”

Adrian Rice, professor of mathematics at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, and his colleagues at the University of Oxford spent long hours at the Bodleian Library in Oxford last year, studying and rearranging the letters between Lovelace and De Morgan. They drew several conclusions about his mathematical strengths such as his tendency to make insightful observations about concepts and his predictions about ideas that would turn out to be true. The researchers say that by the end of her correspondence with De Morgan, she had achieved a college-level understanding of mathematics and that her teacher was already introducing her to open-ended abstract questions. “Many people base this opinion [that Ada’s accomplishments have been overblown] saying she could never have written this because she didn’t know enough math, ”Rice says. “Well what we show in our papers [is] yes, she had enough math, she certainly could have done it. Rice adds that he would consider her to be the world’s first “debugger” more than the world’s first computer programmer: her correspondence with De Morgan.

Lovelace died at just 36, but the scientific community has kept her legacy alive. In 1862, 10 years after his death, American scientist published an excerpt from the Times from London which described an exhibition of machines, one of which was probably a half-built analytical machine. He said, “This is Mr. Babbage’s great calculating machine, which will work quadrations and calculate logarithms up to seven digits.” It was the account of this invention written by the late Lady Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, which led MM. Scheutz of Stockholm to improve it to the point where the machine not only calculates its tables, but also prints its results.

Lovelace has gradually become a pioneering symbol for all women who are or aspire to join the mad whirlwind of science. And the second Tuesday of each October becomes a recognition not only of her, but of all the women throughout history whose contributions have been forgotten or overlooked – or have never been found.


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