Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace was a British mathematician living from 1815 to 1852. She is widely considered the world’s first computer programmer.

Who she was

Born Augusta Ada Byron, Ada was the sole legitimate child of famed British poet, Lord Byron and his wife Anabella. (1) He separated from his wife and left them shortly after her birth. (In truth, this was Annabelle’s choice–she was strictly religious, and had found out Byron had had an affair with his half-sister. (2) Scandal abounds in the history of the Byrons.) Much to the benefit of the future field of computer science, Ada’s mother encouraged her daughter to pursue anything but poetry (“her father’s insanity”). (1) She was educated through private tutors and studied under the University of London’s first professor of mathematics. At age 19 she married a baron (William King) who was created an earl shortly thereafter—and thus she became Ada, Countess of Lovelace. 

What she did

Long interested in mathematics, she became a colleague of Charles Babbage, who is famous for the “Analytical Engine,” considered the first general-purpose computing machine. (1, 4) The Analytical Engine would be remarkably similar to any modern computer scientist (or computer owner):

“The machine was designed to consist of four components: the mill, the store, the reader, and the printer. These components are the essential components of every computer today. The mill was the calculating unit, analogous to the central processing unit (CPU) in a modern computer; the store was where data were held prior to processing, exactly analogous to memory and storage in today’s computers; and the reader and printer were the input and output devices.” — (3)

Why it was important

The “first computer program” she is famous for occurred in a note appended to an article she translated from an Italian mathematician (Luigi Federico Menabrea, “Notions sur la machine analytique de Charles Babbage”) who had been inspired by a lecture from Babbage on his proposed machine. She spent over a year on the translation, and her notes were longer than the original article. In these, she spent much time explaining why the invention was important and what it could do. She incidentally included an algorithm for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers, which experts believe would have run correctly, had the machine ever been built. (1, 2, 4)

How history passed her by

When her paper was published, she and Babbage had what is described as “a minor falling out” over an inclusion of his own statement as a preface, but their friendship recovered and they remained close until she died at the age of 36 from uterine cancer. (3)

In fact, it seems that Charles Babbage himself probably did write the first algorithms for his computing machine, as early as 6-7 years before Ada’s published notes.  (2)

But historians agree—whether or not she can legitimately be called “the first computer programmer,” nothing can take away from her immense contributions. Even if she had written the first algorithm, that would not be her greatest accomplishment. She was a visionary who saw what the machine could do—the first to see that someday, computers would do more than just crunch numbers. Her poetical father perhaps had an influence when she wrote that “the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.” (1)

She may or may not be the “first computer programmer,” but she was the first to see the future of computing—the world we’re all living in—and she is one of the most celebrated women in computer science today.