It may surprise you to know that the world’s first computer programmer did not actually own a computer. In fact, she lived and died almost a century before the first computer was even built. The first person to write a computer program was none other than Ada, Countess of Lovelace, a remarkable mathematician and writer who also happened to be the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron. Ada Lovelace Day was marked last week on October 13, an event which celebrates the achievement of women in STEM, looking back to one of the first and most noteworthy of these women.
In celebration of International Women’s Day we’ve republished this story from These Are Your Numbers, a series on Lifehacker that profiles great minds that have made significant contributions to robotics and computing.
Ada The “Lady Fairy”
Ada, born Augusta Ada Byron, described her unique approach as ‘poetical science’, and defined herself as an ‘Analyst and Metaphysician’ in a world where computer science did not yet exist. Her computing breakthroughs were largely thanks to a close working relationship and friendship with mathematician Charles Babbage, and an interest in his largely theoretical Analytical Engine. The document which contained her historic computer algorithm was simply called Notes, which was presented as a companion and supplementation to her translation of Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea’s article on the Analytical Engine. Her unique mindset also led to Ada being one of the first to consider the capacity of computer being used for something more than just number-crunching.
Ada did not have a happy family life as a child, with her father being disappointed from the beginning that she was not a boy and eschewing any relationship with her. He died when she was eight, but Ada always retained some interest in the father she never knew. Her mother, Anabella Noel, remained bitter towards her former husband after their separation and went to great efforts to foster Ada’s interest in logic and mathematics — seeing them as the polar opposite of the ‘insanity’ she identified in Lord Byron. Even though she did not have a close relationship with her mother, it was largely thanks to Anabella that Ada was so well educated in mathematics.
From a young age Ada was often ill, being confined to extended bed rest many times. Even during her long periods of convalescence Ada never stopped learning, developing her technical and mathematical skills. In June 1829 she contracted measles and was paralysed, only regaining the ability to walk with crutches in 1831. It may have been due to this long period of reduced mobility that a 12-year-old Ada thus decided that she wanted to fly. The way that she tackled such a whimsical concept with a methodical, technically sound approach turned out to be indicative of her adult career. She examined bird anatomy, considered a number of materials for her wings and intended to compile it all into an illustrated book called Flyology, never losing the whimsy that was one reason Charles Babbage would later dub her “Lady Fairy”.
Even as an adult, Ada had an unusually poetic approach to the highly technical world of mathematics. She once wrote this on the subject of differential calculus, once again enforcing why Babbage had bestowed such a nickname on her:
I may remark that the curious transformations many formulae can undergo, the unsuspected and to a beginner apparently impossible identity of forms exceedingly dissimilar at first sight, is I think one of the chief difficulties in the early part of mathematical studies. I am often reminded of certain sprites and fairies one reads of, who are at one’s elbows in one shape now, and the next minute in a form most dissimilar…
The Prophet Of The Computer Age
Ada’s breakthrough came while working on the literature for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, the first model ever created for a general-purpose computer. She first met Babbage through a mutual acquaintance in 1833, and soon after he invited her to see the prototype of his Difference Engine, the forerunner of his later Analytical Engine. Ada impressed the renowned mathematician with her knowledge and intellect, and the two kept close contact throughout the years following.
“Forget this world and all its troubles and if possible its multitudinous Charlatans—every thing in short but the Enchantress of Numbers.” — Charles Babbage
In 1842, an Italian engineer named Luigi Menabrea wrote a description of Babbage’s Analytical Engine in French. Ada was commissioned to translate the paper into English, and ended up spending the better part of a year on the project, adding extensive notes of her own in consultation with Babbage. The notes ended up eclipsing the original translation paper, and within them was included a single algorithm that would enable the Analytical Engine to compute Bernoulli numbers — BLAH — widely recognised as the first program ever written for implementation by a computer.
While some critics question how much of the credit should be given to Ada on what was in large part Babbage’s work, he was never slow to accredit these notes to the Countess. What’s more, he recognised that in her review of his work she had “detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process.” In addition to being the first computer programmer, picking up on this little mistake in his code means that Ada could also be considered the first debugger — and Babbage’s error the first computer bug.
While she is largely recognised for her mathematical algorithm, some of the most forward-thinking concepts contained in her notes had to do with computers being utilised for more than just mathematics. The Analytical Engine received inputs via a series of punch cards, inspired by the mechanical looms of the day that operated on a similar concept. Going back to the original source of this system, Ada looked at the punch cards that could be used to create beautiful patterns on a loom and wondered if the Analytical Engine could similarly be used to create not just computations, but also something beautiful.
[The Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine…
Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.
The Enchantress Of Numbers
Ada was not a typical Victorian lady, potentially thanks to her unconventional upbringing. She courted scandal many times in her life — starting at the age of 18 when she tried unsuccessfully to elope with her tutor after beginning an affair with him. She married only a few years after, but continued to have scandalously close and casual friendships with men, with no regard to what other people thought of it. Ada was even part of a largely male gambling syndicate, for which she tried to come up with a mathematical formula for placing large bets.
While Ada’s social standing, charm and general renown in Victorian England meant that her work and intellect was more widely regarded than most women’s at the time, unfortunately she is still not widely remembered today. In a world where only 28% of STEM positions in Australia are filled by women, a role model like Ada is sorely needed — which is why Ada Lovelace day is celebrated every year in mid-October. The day seeks to bring attention to lesser known female pioneers of STEM fields, of which Ada is one of the first, to give young women a role model — or ideally multiple role models — to aspire to.
Ada unfortunately died young, at the age of 36, before she was able to develop any further concept with her amazing intellect. Her ground-breaking algorithm was never tested, as Babbage’s Analytical Engine lacked the funding to ever make it to a completed state. She has left the world with a continuing legacy for women in STEM, however — an unashamedly feminine figure who was just as open with her passion for mathematics and her love of learning. From her writing:
“I never am really satisfied that I understand anything; because, understand it well as I may, my comprehension can only be an infinitesimal fraction of all I want to understand about the many connections and relations which occur to me.”
All photos from Wikimedia Commons