the first computer programmer (19th century)

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Image: MASHABLE COMPOSITE ALFRED EDWARD CHALON / SCIENCE & SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY

In 1847, at the age of 27, Ada Lovelace became the world’s first programmer, more than a hundred years before the introduction of the first computer. Ahead of its time is probably an understatement, and of course, there is a lot to be learned from Lovelace’s story. Today, scientists around the world celebrate his legacy by organizing special events to encourage women to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). While the gender disparities in STEM have stabilized somewhat, too few women are embarking on this type of career path. One can only imagine how society must have viewed Lovelace, a full-fledged mathematical genius in the 19th century, who was prolific decades before Marie Curie – perhaps the most cited female scientific model – was even born. Alas, she was “but” only a woman.

A genius ahead of his time

The daughter of none other than Lord Byron, the famous poet, Lovelace met when she was just 18 years old with the inventor Charles Babbage, then 42 years old. The two formed a close friendship that would change Ada’s life forever. Babbage was working on a very old calculator-like computer called The Difference Engine, which eventually became the Analytical Engine, a precursor to the modern computer. In 1842, Ada translated a description of it by the Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea. “As she understood it [it] so well, ”Babbage asked Ada to develop the article, which eventually became a 20,000 word book that included the first computer program: an algorithm that would teach the machine how to calculate a series of Bernoulli numbers.

“By understanding what the analytics engine could do – that it was much more than just a calculator – there is no doubt that Ada saw the future of information technology,” said James Essinger, whose Lovelace’s biography titled Ada’s Algorithm is published this week. According to Essinger, Ada developed Babbage’s ideas and envisioned the modern computer. “What computers are doing, with literally billions of applications by billions of people, is exactly what Ada intended. In some ways, it’s almost miraculously prophetic.

Sadly, Babbage never made the machine, and Ada was unable to test her theory until she died at the age of 36 from cancer.

Ada herself has been an inspiration to many, including Michael Faraday. On June 10, 1840, Ada Lovelace sent a copy of her portrait to Michael Faraday with a note saying:

“Dear Mr. Faraday,

Mr. Babbage tells me that you have expressed a wish to own one of my prints, which I feel extremely flattered, and I hope you will accept one that we still have with us.

I apologize that there is no more proof that I could have put my signature on.

Believe me, you very sincerely

Augusta Ada Lovelace

Place Saint-Jacques’

Faraday loved to collect images of people he met or knew, so this etching was gratefully received in his collection.

We can only imagine what Ada might have felt if she had traveled to the future and seen what computers are capable of today and how ubiquitous they have become. Most people in the developed world today carry in their pockets a small computer that has more computing power than the combined power of all the Apollo-era computers used to help humans land on the moon. In fact, almost everyone today owns or at least knows how to power a computer – over four billion PCs, tablets and smartphones are in use today. It’s crazy, but while most people have yet to realize how lucky they are to experience such an exciting time, we can only hope that they eventually get inspired. There is so much we can learn, men and women, from the brave and brilliant Ada Lovelace.


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