Female Role Models: The First Programmer in History, Ada Lovelace
To put things into context:
A painting of Lord Byron
Lord Byron is well known not only for his talent but also for his lifestyle. An article by BBC described the poet as: “mad, bad and dangerous to know“. In 1815 he married Annabella Milbanke. Their marriage was very unhappy. On the bright side, Annabella gave birth to Byron’s only biological child, Ada.
The couple separated in 1816, a year after Ada was born. The poet, pressured by his affairs, debts and a failed marriage, left England to never return. He travelled around Europe, hung out with Percy Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley (who wrote Frankenstein), had several romances and wrote some of his most famous poetic work, such as, Don Juan.
Lord Byron died of fever in 1823 while fighting for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. Many mourned his death.
Countess Ada Lovelace:
Ada Lovelace, the first programmer in history.
Ada was only a few months old when her father and mother separated. She never met her father, but she obviously partially inherited his talent. She may have also inherited her mother’s talent too. Ada’s mother, Lady Byron, had mathematical training. According to the Computer History Museum, Lord Byron called her the ‘Princess of Parallelograms’.
Lady Byron was afraid that her daughter would take after her father and go “insane”. So the girl’s education was primarily focused on math, logic and science. The subjects were the opposite of poetry in Ada’s mother’s mind.
However, Ada seemed to take after her father anyway. She described her scientific approach as “poetical science”. Such a brilliant girl, she designed a flying machine at the young age of 13, in 1828!
Her mathematical education wasn’t common for an aristocratic girl at the time. In fact, according to Biography.com, her mother was quite extreme in her methods. For example, she made Ada lie still for long periods of times to develop self-control.
In 1833, aged 17, Ada met the man that would change her life, Charles Babbage. We’ll come back to him later, but don’t expect a romantic story! Ada’s romance was with William King, a man 10 years older than her. She became the Countess of Lovelace due to his noble title.
Ada’s and William’s marriage seemed to be happy. Apparently, William allowed his mother in law, Lady Byron, to direct their life and fortunes. So everyone was happy, or at least peaceful with each other. The couple had three children. They hung out with the smartest minds of the time (like Charles Dickens). William mostly supported his wife’s interests.
Charles Babbage, one of the “fathers of the modern day computer“:
Charles Babbage, Ada’s lifelong friend and mentor
Let’s get back to Charles Babbage. He was a gentleman scientist (science wasn’t officially considered a profession at the time, according to the Computer History Museum). He loved math, and people call him a polymath.
You might remember that Ada met Charles at just 17 years old. At the time, Babbage was working on the “Difference Engine”, an elaborate calculating machine. The young girl was fascinated by his machine. Charles became her mentor and a lifelong friend. Both of them were unconventional and shared a passion for science. They researched together and were extremely fond of each other. In fact, according to a source, Babbage often described Ada as “The Enchantress of Numbers”.
Charles planned to work on a new and a more complex machine, the Analytical Engine. The project was financed from abroad. Soon after that, an Italian mathematician, Louis Menebrea, published an article about the machine.
A trial model of a part of the Analytical Engine, built by Babbage, is now at the Science Museum in London
Charles Babbage asked Ada to help him expand the article about his machine. Her article was about three times longer than the original when it was published in an English science journal. Ada theorized that codes can be created to process letters and numbers. She also discussed the concept of repeating a sequence of instructions, which is now known as looping.
So, Ada is the first programmer in the history of computer science. However, her article got little attention while Ada was alive. Her later work wasn’t as successful. Sadly, the Countess of Lovelace died aged 37, from uterine cancer. She was buried next to the father she never knew.
The Analytical Engine was a step towards the modern day computer. However, it was never completed. Another branch of inventors dominated the field. Charles’ and Ada’s work was almost forgotten for some time.
Alan Turing at 16 years old
Fast forward a few decades. Enter Alan Turing, another father of the modern-day computer. He used Ada’s notes for his work. Ada’s work was finally being appreciated.
And around half a century later, a programming language was named after Ada Lovelace.
I find it so inspiring to hear about strong female role models in Computer Science, especially when there is so much history involved. Once you put things into context, a whole new world opens up!
If you’re interested in more computer history, definitely check out the movie “The Imitation Game“. I really recommend it (and not only because of the actors). It helps you understand what the first computers were like and feel the atmosphere of the times.
I hope you enjoyed Ada’s story. Another post about a female role model will be coming soon!