Ada Lovelace has been called the world’s first computer programmer. In the 1840s, she wrote the world’s first machine algorithm for an early computer machine that existed only on paper. Lovelace was a brilliant mathematician, thanks in part to her privileged birth.
Born Augusta Ada Byron on December 10, 1815, she was the daughter of the famous romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron. Ada was just a teenager when she met Cambridge mathematics 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. By 1834 he had moved on to designing his Analytical Engine, the first general-purpose computer, which used punched cards for input and output. This machine also lacked funding and was never built. (Babbage’s Difference Engine was ultimately built between 1985 and 2002 – and it worked.)
Babbage was impressed with the bright young woman, 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 conference into French. Ada, then in her late 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 longer than the actual transcript. It was published in 1843.
Lovelace’s notes made it clear that she understood the analytical engine as well as Babbage. Plus, she figured out how to make him do what computers do. She suggested the data entry 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 just quantities, and that a machine capable of manipulating numbers could be designed to manipulate all 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, all of this came true, 100 years later.
Babbage was so impressed with Lovelace’s contributions that he dubbed her “the enchantress of numbers”.
How did a young woman have the opportunity to show the world her talents in the 19th century? Mathematical intelligence wasn’t the only thing Ada had going for her. As the daughter of Lord Byron and his first wife Anne Isabella Noel Byron, she enjoyed entry into the aristocracy. Their marriage broke up shortly after Ada’s birth.
Lady Byron, who studied literature, science, philosophy and mathematics, determined that Ada not follow in his father’s footsteps. Instead of art and literature, Ada was educated in math and science. Ada excelled in all her studies and her interests were very varied. Ada became a baroness in 1835 when she married William King, 8th Baron King; The couple had three children. In 1838 she became Countess of Lovelace when her husband was elevated to the rank of 1st Earl of Lovelace. Her pedigree and peerage alone would have put Lovelace in the history books, but her achievements in mathematics made her a pioneer not only of computing, but also of women scientists.
Lovelace died of cancer in 1852, when she was only 36 years old. More than 150 years later, we remember her contributions to science and engineering as we celebrate Ada Lovelace Day. October 11, 2022. First celebrated in 2009 (March), it is a day set aside to discover and support women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
A version of this story aired in 2015; it has been updated for 2022.