Women You Missed in History Class: Ada Lovelace

ADA LOVELACE 2
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)

If you’re reading this on a computer, you’ve got a 19th century woman to thank (or blame) for that.  It may seem weird for a woman born in 1815 to be considered a computer programmer, but that’s just what Ada Lovelace was.  Lovelace was the daughter of “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” Romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, but she never really knew her father.  He left England before Ada’s first birthday, and died when she was a young child.  Ada was raised by her mother, Annabella Milbanke, and her maternal grandmother, Judith Milbanke.  As a child, Ada was often sick.  She suffered frequent headaches that affected her vision, and at the age of thirteen, she was put on bed rest for almost a full year after a bout of measles.  In spite of her frequent illness, she pursued an education far beyond what most women of her time received.

Instead of focusing her studies on literature and philosophy like most 19th century educated women, Ada studied math and science.  This was partially because she showed a talent for these subjects early on, and partially because her mother felt that following a logical course of study focused on math and science would help Ada avoid following in her father’s footsteps of Romantic poetry and moodiness.  When she was twelve years old she decided she wanted to fly, and drew up plans for a flying machine.  She studied the anatomy of birds and the mechanics of flight in order to construct what might be considered an early airplane.  When she was seventeen, she met Charles Babbage, the mathematician who is now known as the father of the computer.  She was fascinated by Babbage’s work, and he became her mentor.

Babbage had designed a mathematical calculating machine called the Difference Engine, and although he never actually built it, his work received international attention.  In 1842, Ada was asked to translate an article written in Italian on Babbage’s work.  In addition to translating the article, Ada provided her own extensive notes on the article and the uses for Babbage’s machine.  Her notes were about three times longer than the actual article.  Babbage believed that his creation would be limited to mathematical calculations, but Ada visualized it could be used for much more.  She described in her notes how codes could be created to allow the device to handle letters as well as numbers, and suggested a program of data input that would allow the machine to handle any content, including music, text or images.  She created the very first computer program, an algorithm for using the machine to compute Bernoulli numbers.

Just like her father, Ada Lovelace died at the young age of 36, most likely of uterine cancer, but even if she hadn’t died young, she wouldn’t have lived to see her ideas become reality.  About 90 years after Lovelace published her notes on Babbage’s computing machines, Alan Turing read her work and expanded on it with the Universal Turing Machine, ushering in the age of modern computing.  Now, just over two centuries after Lovelace was born, we are living in an age where computers have become an integral part of our daily lives and are used for so much more than the early programmers ever imagined, but none of that would have been possible without Ada Lovelace, the mother of the computer.

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