Did you know that the person who wrote the first algorithm executed by a machine – aka a computer program – was a woman? And what did she do this way in 1843?
In a time before computers and a time when women were only supposed to get married and have babies, how did a woman accomplish something so revolutionary?
Like so much in life, it starts with his parents.
On December 10, 1815, Augusta Ada Byron was born in London to Annabella Milbanke and Lord Byron. Yeah, this Lord Byron, the poet “She walks in beauty, like the night”. While his father was a creative type, his mother was very intelligent and passionate about math and science. In fact, Lord Byron called his wife the “Princess of Parallelograms”.
Unfortunately, it was not a happy marriage, as Annabella suspected Byron was having an affair with his stepsister.
So they separated when Ada was only one month old and she never saw her father again.
Annabella was convinced that the cray cray ran in Byron’s family and was obsessed with removing this side of Ada, so she kept her daughter from her father’s creative interests and immersed Ada in math and science from the start. age four. She hired highly respected mathematicians and scientists as private tutors, and they were all blown away by Ada’s math skills.
But despite her mother’s best efforts, she was still her father’s daughter and creativity flowed through Ada’s veins. When she was twelve, she decided she wanted to fly. She used her math and science skills to analyze birds and her creative side to envision materials that could serve as wings. She even wrote and illustrated a guide called “Flyology”. But before she had the chance to become the first female aviator, her mother made her abandon her fanciful plan to return to school.
But it wouldn’t be the last time Ada combined the creativity and mathematical abilities inherited from her very different parents.
On June 5, 1833, Seventeen-year-old Ada attended a fabulous evening in London where she met Charles Babbage, renowned mathematician and professor at the University of Cambridge. He entertained the crowd with stories about his Difference Engine, a machine he had designed to produce reliable and error-free mathematical calculations.
Ada was an instant fan girl. In fact, she was so fascinated by the idea of ââhis mathematical machine that she later wrote to him asking for the blueprints so that she could better understand it. Babbage was impressed with his intelligence and curiosity and became his mentor. They exchanged letters for nearly twenty years, discussing math and computer science and generally pushing each other toward bigger and better theories. They were a bit like the Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs of the mid-1800s.
Meanwhile, when Ada was nineteen, she married William King, the Earl of Lovelace, and that’s how she took on the totally awesome nickname the Countess of Lovelace. She then took out three childrenâ¦ But despite this, in addition to suffering from various illnesses, Ada continued her mathematics studies.
Babbage, meanwhile, couldn’t get funding to build a working version of his Difference Engine, so he switched to the bigger and better analytical engine. This bad boy was the design of the first programmable computer, with punch cards for input and output, conditional branching, and separate memory, all powered by a crank or steam. Babbage traveled to Europe to promote his idea, trying to get money to build his juggernaut.
Luigi Menabrea, engineer, listened to Babbage’s lectures at the University of Turin, then wrote and published an article on this analytical engine in French. Ada was responsible for translating the document from French to English (because of course she was also fluent in French). When Babbage read it he thought to himself, “Girl, you know more about this machine than this Italian dude, you should add your own thoughts.” So she did.
She added a notes section that tripled the length of the paper! Apparently the Countess had a lot of thoughts on this computer machine, and they were pretty bright.
One section of these notes is credited with being the first computer program – it was a detailed blueprint for punch cards to weave a long sequence of Bernoulli numbers. There is some debate as to how much of this calculation was her work versus Babbage’s, but Babbage himself credited it with correcting “a serious error” in his calculation and called it “the enchantress of numbers “.
What is not for debate is Ada’s vision of what computers could be. It was there that his father’s poetic imagination combined with his mother’s analytical logic, allowing him to glimpse the uses of computers a hundred years ahead of his time.
Babbage only focused on the numbers for his machine, but Ada saw his true potential beyond a simple calculator. His notes indicate that an analytical engine could go beyond numbers, so anything that could be converted into numbers – like music, language, or pictures – could then be manipulated by computer algorithms. She predicted that machines like the Analytical Engine could be used to compose music, produce graphics, and be useful for science. It bears repeating:
Sadly, Ada died on November 27, 1852 from cancer of the uterus at the too young age of 36. But his badass legacy lives on. The Department of Defense has developed a software language called Ada in the late 1970s, and October 13 is Ada Lovelace Day, dedicated to learning and empowering women in science, technology, engineering and math.
Another disappointment is that Babbage ran into financial problems, so a working version of his analytics engine was never built. But can you imagine if he had built it and Ada lived to write the code for it? With the hundred-year-old accelerated computing age, we might already have flying cars and colonies on Mars. Or maybe we would already be destroyed by Skynet. Anyway, thank you Ada – and happy birthday!