Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer

The life of Ada Lovelace, known as the inventor of the world’s first computer program, is a study in contrasts. Her mother thought women were as capable of brilliance as men—a highly unusual and extremely modern attitude in 1815, the year of Ada’s birth. On the other hand, she also held a quaintly old-fashioned notion that would send chills down the spines of today’s mental health professionals. And more than a few of them would be calling Child Protective Services to have the woman charged with abuse.

A match made in hades

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, was the product of the short-lived marriage between the renowned poet Lord Byron and his brilliantly intellectual wife Annabella Milbanke, Baroness Byron. It was a match made in Hades. If he was the Lord of Romanticism and Emotional Rapture, she was the Baroness of Rationality and the Scientific Method. To put it in blunt terms these Victorian aristocrats would never have uttered, Ada’s mother thought Ada’s father was crazy. So crazy that she sent him packing when her daughter was an infant. Now that Papa was gone from the scene Mama still had another urgent problem to tackle: How to prevent little Ada from following her father down the path of lunacy?

How to keep children sane

The Baroness was convinced that her husband’s strong emotions and vivid imagination were to blame for his “condition,” and she decided she must stifle these impediments to sanity in her daughter. But just how could that be accomplished? By teaching her math and science, of course--beginning at a very young age and in very large doses administered by some of England’s greatest intellects hired as tutors. That would discipline Ada’s little mind and ensure that could think rationally. Best of all, it would curb any inherited tendency toward madness because, as we all know, repressing feelings rather than expressing them is the surest way to keep them from getting troublesome. Besides, if Ada is busy learning algebra and geometry before most people learn to read she simply won’t have time for insanity. Especially if she doesn’t have weekends off. No sense wasting Saturday and Sunday on dolls and games, particularly since such activities might over stimulate Ada’s imagination, an open door to folly if she’s anything like her father.

Fortunately, for both science and Ada’s personal well-being, her capacious young mind was able to accommodate both the rational and the emotional, deep thoughts and deep feelings. Perhaps because her mother’s bizarre--and, to contemporary eyes, almost cruel--childrearing theories were actually motivated by love and concern. At any rate, they resulted in a girl with a highly trained intellect… and a very fertile and altogether sane imagination. Like all children Ada dreamt of being able to fly. Unlike most, at age twelve, she applied the principles of physics she had been taught to designing a flying machine. And then wrote and illustrated a pamphlet that reported her findings.

Science + Imagination = Visionary Thinking

Ada continued her studies with tutors and books and in 1833 at the age of 18 she met the famous mathematician Charles Babbage at a party in London. Babbage had invented a device that could make calculations by turning a handle, the “Difference Machine”. Ada was so fascinated by his description of the mechanical calculator that he invited her to his home to see it. Over the following years, the two mathematical minds played off one another by exchanging ideas about such machines and their potential. When Babbage came up with his next invention, the “Analytical Engine”, and published a paper on it in a Swiss academic journal in 1842, Ada translated it from French and added her own notes, which were twice as long as the original article.

What Ada had understood--and included in her notes--was that such machines could be programmed to complete calculations far more complex than Babbage had imagined. Ada posited that the machine worked via patterns based on algebra and designed an elaborate method by which punch cards would be used to greatly increase the machine’s problem-solving power. Ada’s system is now considered to be the very first computer program. As would be expected, the world would not accept that a woman could have such dazzling ideas. Many refused to believe that the entire paper had not been written by Babbage, despite his public assertions that some of the most original and groundbreaking aspects of it consisted of Ada’s contributions. We are left to wonder how much more progress the two would have made if her life had been longer. Sadly, Ada died of uterine cancer just a few years later at the young age of 36.

Ada’s imagination, despite her mother’s monumental efforts to contain it, endowed her with a more far-ranging vision than many of the other great minds of her day. She made what we would now call a “conceptual leap.” She wrote to Babbage that, “This science constitutes the language through which alone we can adequately express the great facts of the natural world.” Later generations would call it “computer science”, and in our day it has become an essential tool in every other branch of science. Without it, the greatest advances of the past 60 years, no matter the field of research, could never have been made. 

For Women in Science

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