The first computer programmer was an uneducated opioid addict


The onset of the Victorian era was hardly the time for women to be arrogant about their glow. But Countess Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, didn’t care.

Lovelace, who wrote the first computer program a century before the advent of computers, never hesitated to talk about his genius.

“My brain is something more than just deadly,” she once told a colleague, according to the new book “Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet” (Portfolio), by Claire L. Evans.

Born in 1815, Lovelace was the product of a passionate but short-lived marriage between Lord Byron and a “mathematically inclined aristocrat” named Anne Isabella Milbanke, whom Byron called “the princess of parallelograms”. The marriage ended after a year, and Byron never met his daughter.

Milbanke feared Lovelace would turn out to be a romantic sleazy like Byron and “started a rigorous course in teaching mathematics at the age of 4”.

“She didn’t want her daughter to adopt one of the [Byron’s] poetic fantasy or romantic temper, ”says Evans. “But much to her mother’s horror, Ada shared her uncontrollable poetic spirit. She just applied it to math.

As a girl, Lovelace was not allowed to pursue formal university studies. Instead, she hired private tutors and corresponded with many of England’s brightest minds.

When she was 17, she attended a trade show hosted by British mathematician Charles Babbage, hoping to see his new invention, the Difference Engine. She was “immediately fascinated by. . . the imposing block of interconnected brass gears and cogs that used the power of steam to perform mathematical calculations.

Over the next few years, Lovelace married William King-Noel, 1st Earl of Lovelace, making her a countess. She had three children at age 24 and led the busy life of a woman of high social standing.

But she never stopped studying math and kept in frequent contact with Babbage, begging to get involved in his work.

“I hope you think of me,” she wrote to him in 1840. “I mean my mathematical interests. You know this is the greatest favor anyone can do me.

Babbage was already formulating his next big idea: a machine capable of calculating variables, making it “capable of solving all types of problems.”

He called it the Analytical Engine, and although it was never built due to lack of funds, Babbage wrote 30 volumes of blueprints for it.

In 1840, Babbage was invited to present these plans to a group of scientists in Turin, Italy. A young engineer named LF Menabrea, future Italian Prime Minister, wrote a detailed article on the analytical engine for a Swiss newspaper.

When Lovelace saw the document, she translated it, correcting Menabrea’s mistakes as it went, and presented it to Babbage, who was so impressed that he asked her to write his own document.

After working feverishly for nine months between 1842 and 1843, she had gone far beyond a simple translation, “synthesiz[ing] the vast scope of Babbage’s vision ”and telling the world why that would matter.

“What she did, basically, was write the software for what this machine would do,” Evans said. “It’s the conceptual leap from hardware design to, OK, what are we going to use this machine for. She wrote what many people say was the first computer program, for this computer that was never even built.

As if that wasn’t impressive enough, Lovelace, who had suffered from various medical ailments, was prescribed laudanum for most of his adult life and wrote his notes “through an opium haze. , [laboring] in bursts of feverish energy.

“She was addicted to opiates,” says Evans. “It helped her get through the day, but she also suffered withdrawal when she couldn’t get her dose. She would get really stressed out, she couldn’t sleep, her eyeballs were itching. It wasn’t until she was able to take her laudanum that she was able to relax and feel like herself.

The analytical engine has come to “represent the conceptual dawn of the computer age,” writes Evans. Lovelace’s Notes were republished in 1953, cementing its place in the tradition of computer programming.

Lovelace died of uterine cancer in 1852 at the age of 36. Although she has three children, she considered her grades on Menabrea’s essay to be her “firstborn”.

“He’s an exceptionally good baby,” she wrote to Babbage, after finishing her draft, according to Evans’ book. “He will become a man of the first greatness and the first power.”


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