Ada Lovelace: the first computer programmer

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Ada lovelace has been called the world’s first computer programmer. What she did was write the world’s first machine algorithm for a first computer machine that only existed on paper. Of course, someone had to be first, but Lovelace was a woman, and that was in the 1840s. Lovelace was a brilliant mathematician, in part thanks to the opportunities she was given and denied to most. women of the time.

The enchantress of numbers

Born Ada Byron on December 10, 1815, Ada was only a teenager when she met Cambridge math professor Charles Babbage, who had invented the Difference Engine, a mechanical computer designed to produce mathematical tables automatically and without error. Babbage never built the actual machine due to personal setbacks and funding difficulties. In 1834 he had set out to design his Analytical engine, the first general-purpose computer, which used punch cards for entry and exit. This machine also lacked funding and was never built. (Babbage’s difference engine was finally built between 1985 and 2002 — and it worked.)

Babbage was impressed with the brilliant young lady, and they corresponded for years, discussing math and computer science as he developed the Analytical Engine. In 1842 Babbage gave a lecture on the engine at the University of Turin. Luigi Menabrea, mathematician (and future Italian prime minister), transcribed the lecture in French. Ada, now in her twenties and known as the Countess of Lovelace, was commissioned to translate the transcript into English. Lovelace added his own notes to the lecture, which ended up being three times as long as the actual transcript. It was published in 1843.

Lovelace’s notes made it clear that she understood the analytical engine as well as Babbage himself. Plus, she figured out how to make it do what computers do. She suggested entering data that would program the machine to calculate Bernoulli numbers, which is now considered the first computer program. But more than that, Lovelace was a visionary: she understood that numbers could be used to represent more than quantities, and a machine capable of manipulating numbers could be designed to manipulate all the data represented by numbers. She predicted that machines like the analytical engine could be used to compose music, produce graphics, and be useful for science. Of course, this all happened … in 100 years.

Babbage was so impressed with Lovelace’s contributions that he nicknamed her “The enchantress of numbers. “

A multitude of opportunities

How did a young woman get the opportunity to show the world her talents in the 19th century? Mathematical intelligence wasn’t the only thing Ada Lovelace had going for her. She was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron and his first wife Anne Isabella Noel Byron. Both were privileged members of the aristocracy, and both were gifted and well educated. Their marriage broke up shortly after Ada’s birth.

Lady Byron, who studied literature, science, philosophy and, most unusual for a woman, mathematics, determined that Ada not follow in his father’s footsteps. Instead of studying art and literature, Ada took math and science classes. Ada excelled in all of her studies and her interests were very diverse. Ada became baroness in 1835 when she married William King, 8th baron king; both had three children. In 1838, she became Countess of Lovelace when her husband was elevated to the rank of Count of Lovelace. Her pedigree and peerage alone would have put Lovelace in the history books, but her achievements in mathematics made her a pioneer of not only computer science, but women in science as well.

Lovelace died of cancer in 1852, when she was only 36 years old. Almost 170 years later, we remember his contributions to science and engineering in the celebration of Ada Lovelace Day October 13. First celebrated in 2009 (in March), it is a day for learning for women in science, technology, engineering and math.

A version of this story was released in 2015; it has been updated for 2021.


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