Ada Lovelace: The first computer programmer
These days, almost every home has a computer, laptop, or related device that is liberally used and often taken for granted. Although many of us common folk don’t know exactly what makes our devices tick, the programming and coding that goes into our computers date back to the Victorian Era. Who is the remarkable young woman who broke era-based gender barriers and worked her butt off to become the first computer programmer in the field?
The early life of Ada
Ada Lovelace has become a legend in her own right, yet her childhood status also put her on the map. She was born in England in 1815, the daughter of the esteemed poet and revolutionary Romanticist, Lord Byron, and his wife, Anne Byron. Unfortunately, despite being a popular poet, Lord Byron wasn’t exactly “father of the year.” After his wife called it splits due to his volatile moods and extreme emotional fits, he hit the road and left Ada behind to grow up without a father. Fortunately, the young woman didn’t take the setback as an excuse to throw out her life. Instead, both she and her mother ensured that she developed a strict focus on her studies. Rather than sticking to the typical female curriculum of the era, Anne decided to hire tutors to stimulate Ada’s mind in ways that would be rewarding to her intellect.
Although it was atypical for women and girls to study subjects such as math and science during the era of Ada’s childhood, Anne encouraged her tutors to drill her on these topics. Why? She wanted to make sure Ada avoided ending up becoming a carefree writer like her whimsical, impulsive father. It may not have been a conventional method of training a young woman’s behavior, yet it certainly did the trick. Ada excelled in the subjects she was taught, be it science, English, literature, or mathematics. Working with family friends and skilled tutors, Ada grew from a bright child into a brilliant young woman, both talented and knowledgeable of what she was capable of. She was eager to put her skills and knowledge to use…and a chance run-in with a future mentor would give her just that opportunity.
Ada and Babbage: A match made in Heaven
When Ada met Charles Babbage, a mathematics professor at Cambridge (now known as the “father of the computer”), he seemed to be the solution to one of Ada’s biggest problems: getting her foot in the door. During their first interaction, they began to kindle what would become a highly unusual friendship for the pre-Victorian era. They were both living in London in a society dictated by law and economics rather than science, and Ada was facing negative pressure as both a woman and an aspiring inventor. Fortunately, Babbage took Ada under his wing, recognizing her brilliance just as her tutors and mother had before. Rather than casting her away for her gender, Babbage began to mentor Ada, revealing his vast knowledge, his scientific plans, and his grand invention goals to a young and inspired Ada.
From that point onward, Ada and Babbage often engaged in deep intellectual conversation and heated scientific debates, stimulating one another’s knowledge about the field. During this time, Ada got a glimpse into a fascinating new project that Babbage was working on. It was a follow-up to a previously drafted invention, a calculating device called the Difference Engine, which he had designed but never fully completed. However, he had a new task on his mind: producing a second, better-developed machine called the Analytical Engine. Although his pals in the Parliament weren’t up to support his new invention until the first one was completed, Babbage was able to get others around Europe hyped up for his design, including an Italian intellectual with a major passion for Babbage’s project. But how does a random Italian man tie into the scientific fame of Ada Lovelace?
Ada’s incredible “notes” on coding
Louis Menebrea, an Italian mathematician, was a major fan of Babbage’s work. He was so fond of Babbage’s concepts that he wrote an entire memoir dedicated to the subject of the Analytical Engine and published the text in a Swiss journal. That’s a pretty big compliment, huh? There was a teensy little problem with the publication…the entire text was written in French. Those in Europe who didn’t speak French would be unable to appreciate the hard work of either man, including poor Babbage himself. Fortunately for both of them, Ada spoke perfect French (thanks, years of tutoring!) and was able to translate the text so that Babbage could comprehend Menebrea’s thoughts on his work. However, while Ada did translate the words of Menebrea, she also added in some of her own thoughts. And by “some,” we mean “a ton.”
Across the course of nine months, Ada reviewed and translated the memoir by Menebrea, all while adding in her own thoughts in a section she entitled, “Notes.” Not only did her comments suggest ways to improve the machine, but they also predicted the future of what technology such as the Analytical Engine could accomplish. When all was said and done, her “Notes” section ended up being three times the length of Menebrea’s memoir. Recognized as the incredible stand-alone work that they were, her comments eventually got published in a scientific journal, sharing her concepts of computer functioning with the world. Ada’s research suggested that there may be ways to code information into a computer so that it could handle multiple symbols, letters, and numbers, as well as introducing the popular and widespread concept of “looping” information that is practiced on most modern computers today. Although her era made her an unlikely candidate to become the epic computer scientist that she is respected as today, Ada’s contributions to technology have earned her the title as the world’s first genuine computer programmer.