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Woman Who Wrote First Ever Computer Programme

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

Acclaimed as a mathematical genius, Ada Lovelace is said to have understood the potential of the first computer blueprints better than its inventor, Charles Babbage. A serendipitous friendship with this mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer brought her in contact with his early ideas for mechanical calculators and a preliminary prototype for a general-purpose computer.

Portrait of Ada Lovelace by Alfred Edward Chalon
Portrait of Ada Lovelace by Alfred Edward Chalon | Wikipedia

Her writing on this subject is widely considered seminal and includes the first reported example of an algorithm written specifically for a computer. These contributions earned her the reputation as “the first computer programmer”.

Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron, the only legitimate offspring of the brief marriage between the poet Lord Byron and the mathematician Annabella Milbanke (later known as Lady Byron). After their heir marriage fell apart, Lady Byron returned to her parents’ home bringing her five-week old daughter with her. Ada became a Lovelace after her marriage to the 1st Earl of Lovelace, Viscount of Ockham, making her Countess of Lovelace.

Lady Byron ensured that her daughter benefited from the best tutors, particularly in maths and science, for which Lovelace demonstrated a particular flair.

Among her many influential tutors was the mathematician and astronomer Mary Somerville, who introduced her to the 42-year old widower Charles Babbage when she was 17. The next day, Lovelace and her mother, Lady Byron, visited Babbage to see an early prototype of his difference engine, a mechanical construct designed to calculate logarithms and trigonometric functions using what is known as the “finite difference” technique.

At the time, tables of this kind could only be obtained laboriously by hand, and were prone to errors. Babbage’s ideas for an error-proof machine to calculate these values attracted investments from the UK government, equivalent to well over a million pounds in today’s money.

The difference engine also sparked intense interest from Lovelace and a long-lasting relationship of mutual esteem ensued. Unfortunately, the difference engine would never make it past the prototype stage, as Babbage’s shifted his interests on to an even more powerful calculating machine: the analytical engine.

Remarkably, this analytical machine meets the criteria for a computationally universal device as outlined by Alan Turing a century later. The logical structure of Babbage's design was shared by later electronic computers at the birth of the digital age. In fact, it was so far ahead of its time few could really comprehend its capabilities, and here Lovelace played a crucial role.

In 1843, she published a manuscript about Babbage's analytical machine. A key insight she espouses in her notes is the recognition that the machine manipulated numbers as abstract quantities, so that the analytical engine “might act upon other things besides number”.

In this way Lovelace wrote of the analytical engine’s potential beyond a mere calculator, a uniquely visionary perception of the device that appears to overshoot even Babbage’s foresight for the uses of his own invention. Among the numerous appendices of her paper she included an algorithm in appendix G for finding Bernoulli numbers, which is widely acclaimed as the first ever computer algorithm.

It is impossible to know how much further her thinking and ideas would have developed as, sadly, Lovelace died tragically young at the age of just 36.

Yet despite her apparent achievements, recognition of her role as one of the founders of modern computing has been somewhat suppressed, probably it's another classic example of gender prejudices. As a result, in the UK, the second Tuesday of October each year is celebrated as Ada Lovelace Day to commemorate not only her achievements, but also those of the many other female figures in science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) who have lacked due recognition over the years. Subsequent computing developments also take her name.


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