Ada Lovelace – The World’s Very First Programmer

Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852)
Portrait by Margaret Sarah Carpenter

On November 27, 1852, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, who is considered to be the world’s very first programmer, passed away. Every student of computer science should have heart of the world’s first programmer, Ada Countess of Lovelace, assistant to Charles Babbage, inventor of the very first programmable (mechanical) computer, the analytical engine. Allthough probably not widely known to the general public, there are Ada Lovelace tuition programs for girls, a programming language called ‘ADA’, as well as numerous references in popular culture, literature, and even a graphic novel.

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, was born on December 10, 1815, as Ada Augusta Byron, daughter of the famous English poet Lord Byron, to a wealthy family of nobility. Still, her childhood was pretty unfortunate. Since her parents got divorced early, she never had a real relationship with her father George Gordon Byron, a poet, and her mother used to refer to her daughter Ada as ‘it’. However, Augusta Ada Byron received an early mathematical education, uncommon for girls in her age. Luckily, Ada’s talents and her brilliance were quickly detected and would basically determine the rest of her life.

Ada’s love to mathematics and her admiration for the scientist Mary Somerville led to a meeting of Charles Babbage and herself in 1833, which was to change her life critically. Babbage published a paper on his famous difference engine about 10 years earlier, a calculating machine designed to tabulate polynomial functions. Augusta Ada Byron was highly interested in Charles Babbage’s work and especially in his machine, which many scientists were talking about. After some scientific debates with Babbage, he was deeply in love with her writing abilities as well as her mathematical skills, wherefore he called her the ‘enchantress of numbers’.

Ada’s ascent to being a recognized scientist was hard due to her family’s public attention as well as to the fact that women in science and technology were still rare in the middle of the 19th century. Still, her chance came with Babbage’s publication of the ‘analytical engine’, a successor of the prior ‘difference engine’ and the very first general purpose programmable mechanical computer. Ada was to translate an article of Luigi Menabrea about the new machine, adding numerous notes explaining the machine’s function. It is to be added that Ada’s notes turned out being longer than the original work itself, because most scientists were not able to understand the difference between the two machines of Babbage. Ada also explained an algorithm for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers with the new machine, wherefore she is now mostly known for being the world’s first computer programmer. As many researchers read Ada’s work over the years, they recognized her being even more visionary than Babbage himself. Unfortunately, an operational version of the analytical engine was not built until 2002 – due to the lack of accuracy of contemporary precision engineering – and Ada was recognized for her work only over a century after the first publication, when the engine was proven to be an early model of the computer.

Ada Lovelace has critically influenced early achievements on programming but also faced lifelong difficulties with her family as well as with society, that rather emphasized her antics with alcohol, men or gambling than paying attention to her mathematical brilliance.

During her short life, Ada Lovelace has made many acquaintances with scientists, inventors, and writers such as Charles Dickens or Andrew Crosse. The interesting – more or less fictional – relationship between the famous Michael Faraday and Ada Lovelace was dramatized by Ralf Bönt’s novel ‘Die Entdeckung des Lichts‘ (in english: The discovery of the light). Faraday was not the only scientist enchanted by the presence of Lady Lovelace. Even Konrad Zuse, inventor of the first modern computer, was according to German novelist F. C. Delius in his book ‘Die Frau, für die ich den Computer erfand‘ (in english: The woman, for who I invented the Computer) motivated by the thought of the 19th century ‘Enchantress of Numbers’.

At yovisto you can learn more about Ada Lovelace in the video report from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) explaining the contribution and importance of the Countess of Lovelace in the field of engineering.

References and further Reading:

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