Today We Celebrate a Woman Who Saw the Future of Computers

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day celebrating the life of Lady Lovelace, a seventeenth century countess who published a paper that might be the first computer program ever devised

A young Ada Lovelace. Image: John Murray Publishers London

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day celebrating the life of Lady Lovelace, a nineteeth-century countess who published a paper that might be the first computer program ever devised. Ada Lovelace Day uses her as a symbol for women in science, hoping to bolster support for girls around the world who might be discouraged from pursuing science, technology, engineering, math, chemistry and the like.

Here’s how Finding Ada, a group dedicated to organizing and promoting the day, puts it:

It’s incontrovertible that there are fewer women than men in fields like science, tech, engineering and maths (collectively known as STEM). Despite evidence that girls do well in such subjects at school, few go on to study them at university and even fewer then get jobs in these fields. By the time you get to the boardroom, there are hardly any women to be seen.

The reasons for this inequality are many, spanning issues such as social pressure on girls and women to pursue “suitable” careers, subtle misogyny in higher education and the workplace, and a lack of support for women who wish to have a family or re-skill when re-entering the workforce after having a family. These are complex problems that we all need to work to understand and address, but there is one key issue that we can focus on quite easily.

So who was Ada Lovelace anyway? Well, she’s known to most as “the world’s first computer programmer.” At a party in 1833, Lovelace met Charles Babbage, the man who built the world’s first computer, called the Babbage Engine. In 1843 Babbage wrote this about her:

Forget this world and all its troubles and if
possible its multitudinous Charlatans – every thing
in short but the Enchantress of Numbers.

And so Lovelace became known as the “Enchantress of Numbers” and went on to write this famous program. Smithsonian explains:

In 1835 she married William King, Baron King (and later Earl of Lovelace), with whom she would have three children. Ada continued her interest in mathematics and science and met and corresponded with other scientists and mathematicians. One of these was Charles Babbage, who invented what are considered to be the first computers, the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine. Babbage asked Ada to translate an Italian mathematician’s memoir analyzing his Analytical Engine (a machine that would perform simple mathematical calculations and be programmed with punchcards), but Ada went beyond completing a simple translation. She wrote her own set of notes about the machine and even included a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers; this is now considered to be the first computer program.

While the Bernoulli number program was interesting, it wasn’t the thing that makes Lovelace so important. From the Computer History Museum:

Perhaps more importantly, the article contained statements by Ada that from a modern perspective are visionary. She speculated that the Engine ‘might act upon other things besides number… the Engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent’. The idea of a machine that could manipulate symbols in accordance with rules and that number could represent entities other than quantity mark the fundamental transition from calculation to computation. Ada was the first to explicitly articulate this notion and in this she appears to have seen further than Babbage. She has been referred to as ‘prophet of the computer age’. Certainly she was the first to express the potential for computers outside mathematics. In this the tribute is well-founded.

Now, there is some controversy about whether what Ada did can really be called programming. In 1990, Allen Bromley wrote a history of difference and analytical engines and had this to say about Ada:

All but one of the programs cited in her notes had been prepared by Babbage from three to seven years earlier. The exception was prepared by Babbage for her, although she did detect a “bug” in it. Not only is there no evidence that Ada ever prepared a program for the Analytical Engine but her correspondence with Babbage shows that she did not have the knowledge to do so.

A thesis by Bruce Collier says something similar:

Although it is clear that Lady Lovelace was a woman of considerable interest and talent, and it is clear that she understood to a very considerable degree Babbage’s ideas about the general character and significance of the Analytical Engine, and expressed them well in her notes to Menabrea’s paper, it is equally clear that the ideas were indeed Babbage’s and not hers; indeed, she never made any claim to the contrary. She made a considerable contribution to publicizing the Analytical Engine, but there is no evidence that she advanced the design or theory of it in anyway. And she did not even express an interest in learning about the machine until January 5, 1841, even as late as June 30, 1843, she apparently knew quite little about the mechanical details of the Engine.

All of this is said not to belittle Lady Lovelace, but because a very exaggerated view has been formed by some recent writers of the significance of her contribution to the Engine or of her role in Babbage’s life.

Although Babbage did write about the importance of Ada’s notes to him:

If you are as fastidious about the acts of your friendship as you are about those of your pen, I much fear I shall equally lose your friendship and your Notes. I am very reluctant to return your admirable & philosophic ‘Note A.’ Pray do not alter it . . . All this was impossible for you to know by intuition and the more I read your notes the more surprised I am at them and regret not having earlier explored so rich a vein of the noblest metal.

Sadly, after all this work Ada died a painful death. From Smithsonian again:

Like a number of Victorians, Ada became an opium addict. During her grim death from cancer, her mother hid the opium she was then using to ease the pain so that Ada would suffer more — and repent. Her death left Babbage bereft of the woman whom Anthony Hyman describes as “his beloved interpretress.” His plans called for a punch-card system that would command the functions of the still-theoretical machine. He got the card idea from a famous French loom introduced in the early 1800s by Joseph Marie Jacquard that used selected cards to automate the weaving of multicolored patterns. It was Ada who could best express what the card system would do for Charles’ machine: “We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.”

Babbage wasn’t the only one Lovelace inspired, or perhaps haunted. Charles Dickens met Ada when she was thirty three. According to The Enchantress of Numbers, a book about Lovelace, Dickens then wrote to her claiming that strange things were happening at his hotel:

He wondered whether Ada was “haunting” him, and if so: “I hope you won’t do so.”

Three years later, Dickens visited Ada at her deathbed. He was one of the last non-family members, other than her physicians, to see her alive.

Of course, whether or not Ada really was the first computer programmer is kind of beside the point of Ada Lovelace Day. Rather, the purpose, according to the the Finding Ada website, is to:

As a result of the activity around Ada Lovelace Day, we also hope to make it easier for conference organisers to find women to talk at their events, and for journalists to find women to comment on STEM stories, or to even bethe story. We hope that women struggling to understand why their achievements are being downplayed by peers and bosses will take heart from the stories they see, and will fight even harder for the equality they deserve. We hope that mothers and fathers and teachers wil find inspiration to pass on to their children and students, even finding inspriation themselves. And we hope that young girls will see that it’s not just OK to love science, tech, engineering and maths, but that there are real opportunities for them, at school, at university, and at work.

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