The world’s first computer programmer is a 200-year-old woman, and that’s a good thing


A century before the first computers, Ada Lovelace wrote a study on the potential of Charles Babbage Analytical engine to build. Babbage’s Analytical Engine is considered the world’s first computer, and Lovelace the world’s first computer programmer. She predicted how Babbage’s design could be a general-purpose computer, that he could manipulate not only numbers but also music, and even one day compose complex, scientific pieces. The Analytical Engine, she writes: “weaves algebraic patterns like the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.”

Almost 200 years later, much of what she proposed is now possible. Today’s software can calculate aspects of our understanding of music, while harmony patterns and other musical elements may encompass music of ever increasing complexity. The software can analyze compositions and extract the underlying musical structures.

With the right software and the right inputs, computers can indeed now generate complex parts – following the style of, say, classical composer Toru Takemitsu or jazz master Tatum Art – by learning or imitating recurring musical patterns.

Computer programs can also identify the sensual dimensions of musical expressiveness, for example, the subtle differences between the performances of two different musicians of the same composition. Mathematical and computer models have become valuable tools for questioning what we know about music and for opening up new possibilities for musical expression. “

The analytic engine makes no claim to creating anything, “Lovelace wrote, but by making music and science computationally sensitive, they are” thrown into new light and studied in greater depth. “

Lovelace made premonitory predictions about computing as she lived in an era when women were denied education. How did she overcome the odds of doing such remarkable ideas about IT centuries before computers existed?


Outstanding role models have proven to be particularly important for women, telling women that “someone like me can succeed”. Lovelace had no shortage of role models: his mother Annabella was well trained by former Cambridge University professors in Classics, Philosophy, Mathematics and Science, contrary to convention.

In turn, Annabella ensured that her daughter learned science and mathematics from the best minds in England (albeit as an antidote to her father Lord Byron’s artistic “madness”). Among Ada’s mentors was Scottish astronomer and mathematician Mary Somerville.

Role models are even more important because of the unconscious associations we inevitably trade between gender and the types of activities deemed appropriate or attractive to men and women. This implicit bias tends to limit women to stereotypical roles, such as care positions rather than managerial positions. Women are judged more harshly than men: female students rate female university professors more negatively than male speakers for the same performance.

Applications for academic scientific positions are judged more favorably when paired with a male name, leading to a higher starting salary and more career mentoring. Women leaders who act with confidence and authority are perceived more negatively than men expressing the same traits. Etc.

Ada, Countess of Lovelace and “Enchantress of Numbers” as Babbage called her.
William Henry Mote / Ada Image Library

So while there are some notable female role models, they often don’t have the same opportunities as their male counterparts. All-male lineups of keynote speakers at tech conferences are not uncommon, while women remain a minority in the higher echelons of classical music performance, composition, and scholarship. The proportion of women working like me at the intersection of music and technology, two fields dominated by men, is indeed extremely low.

Yet I was lucky to have as a mentor Jeanne Bamberger, professor of music and urban education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – a remarkable woman and a pioneer of music and artificial intelligence. Former child prodigy, Bamberger had studied with the pianist Arthur schnabel, theorist-composer Roger sessions, and composers Olivier Messiaen and Ernst Krenek. Great woman not afraid of new ideas, she worked on music software such as Impromptu for research and teaching of music. She introduced me to the early work of Christopher Longuet-Higgins and Mark Steedman, and inspired me with a lifelong passion for using mathematics and computer tools to study and explain what musicians do, how we do. do it and why.

Although I have never questioned my choice to enter this mathematical world, it is hard to ignore how few women there are. I was usually the one or one of only two students in my computer science or math classes, or in my doctoral program in operations research. It is therefore with a certain satisfaction (deserved or not) that I found my doctoral thesis at MIT on the mathematical modeling of the tonality signed by four women: professors Jeanne Bamberger, Georgia Perakis (who preceded me by receiving the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers), Cynthia barnhart, now Chancellor of MIT, and myself.

So Ada Lovelace Day, marking the 200th anniversary of her birth this year, is a recognition of the need for visible and exceptional female role models in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and a celebration of achievements of women working in these fields.

Lovelace may have been a computer pioneer, but the percentage of women studying computer science has plummeted since 1984 due to lack of sense of belonging. This feeling, even more acute for women who stray from the beaten path into more esoteric realms, can be countered through education and role models – something we desperately need more if we are to capitalize on Ada. Lovelaces of today.

The conversation

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Elaine chew, digital media teacher, Queen Mary University of London

This article was originally published on The conversation. Read it original article.


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