Ada Lovelace was one of the world’s earliest computer programmers. She was a pioneer not only because of her mathematical skill but also due to her success in a society where the world of science was dominated by men.
Her achievements are honoured annually on the 8th October with Ada Lovelace Day. It is an international celebration of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), cementing Ada’s place in history as one of the fields’ most influential figures.
Born Augusta Ada Byron in 1815, she was the sole child of Annabella Milbanke and the infamous romantic poet, George Gordon Byron, better known as Lord Byron. After a turbulent marriage, Annabella and Byron separated.
In order to avoid any possibility of young Ada developing a similar ‘poetic’ temperament to her volatile father, Annabella encouraged her daughter to indulge her interest in machines. She underwent a strict regime of scientific, logical and mathematical education, all of which were subjects women were not commonly exposed to in the 19th century.
It was clear at an early stage of Ada’s education that she was particularly gifted. Her tutor, Augustus De Morgan, was a mathematician and commented that she had the potential to become ‘an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence’.
Ada met her lifelong friend and mentor Charles Babbage, a Professor of Mathematics, in 1833. He began work on a new invention- the Analytical Engine. It was this machine that would allow Ada to demonstrate her talent. It was never built, but it possessed all the essential elements of a modern computer, including an arithmetical unit, conditional branching and loops, and integrated memory.
An article had been written about the Analytical Engine by Luigi Menabrea. Babbage asked Ada to translate it and expand upon it due to her in-depth understanding for the mechanisms of the engine. Her final article was over three times the length of Menabrea’s, where she had noted the machine’s potential range of uses. It was the first article to be published about the Analytical Machine. The article was entitled “Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator”. This was the beginning of her legacy as ‘the first computer programmer’.
Her Contribution to Science
Ada’s expansion of the article demonstrated that in some ways she understood the Analytical Engine more than its inventor did. She certainly recognised its full potential more than Babbage by looking beyond the tables of numbers that it could calculate without error.
Ada realised that if the Analytical Engine could manipulate numbers, it could do the same with symbols. At the time, symbolic logic was a newly emerging field. Today it underpins modern computer programming. Symbolic logic would allow the Analytical Engine to undertake very complex tasks, processing an algorithm and producing an answer that had not been pre-programmed into it.
Sadly, Ada died when she was only 36 years old. Although she was never able to test her expanded theories on the Analytical Engine, Ada’s idea of a machine (or computer) that could reach answers when given the correct programming and inputs was a huge leap in science and 100 years ahead of its time.
Her ideas were rediscovered and put to use by Alan Turing during his time at Bletchley Park, the headquarters of enemy code-breaking espionage in the Second World War. Turing was an instrumental part of the team attempting to crack the seemingly impenetrable Enigma Code (the Enigma was a German enciphering machine used to send top-secret military messages). In the midst of his research, Turing came across Ada’s translation of the Menabrea article and her personal notes on the topic, which was critical in helping him crack the code.
Ada’s legacy continues to inspire people today, with the 8th October marking an international celebration of women’s achievements in STEM. It helps to raise the profile of modern-day female figures and showcases new role models who can inspire the female pioneers of the future.