If you had the chance to go back in time and visit the mid-nineteenth century London and you somehow managed to get introduced to the circles of nobility there, you may have surely heard of Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace. She was an intelligent, attractive and charming woman who had married well and hung out with the finest minds of England. She was admired for her bright mind, surely, but no one would have been able to truly grasp the far-reaching implications of her intuitions in science. Not even her. If she could have, she would’ve introduced herself as “Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, and the first computer programmer.
Ada was the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron. She was born on December 10th 1815. On that occasion, a normal person would’ve been overwhelmed by joy: the birth of one’s offspring is always a reason to be happy and celebrate, after all. But Byron being… Well, Byron, he was very disappointed that his only legitimate child wasn’t a boy. In his own words:
“A girl?! Fuck it, I’m outta here.”
Okay, those probably weren’t his actual words, but he did indeed abandon Ada and her mother a few months later to go to Greece, which apparently was back-then’s Mexico for English affluent men. He never returned to England, never had any contact with her daughter, not even through correspondence, and died there when Ada was only eight years old.
Predictably, the abandonment left a slight mark on the relationship between Byron and his ex wife. She became worried that her ex-husband could have transmitted their daughter with his insanity (this was the eighteen hundreds, after all) and she did everything she could to divert young Ada’s attention from literature and poetry to science and mathematics, even from a very early age. The results were… Mixed. Ada was used to mixing poetry and mathematics.
When her tutor introduced her to mathematician Charles Babbage, she was just 17. Babbage was a brilliant mathematician who had just invented a mechanical computer he named the Analytical Engine, which in many ways was very ahead of its time. It even had similarities with modern computers, having a memory, a system of input and output, the ability to program loops and conditional branches, and so on. In modern parlance, the Analytical Engine was Turing-complete. Unfortunately, the Engine was never completed, because many intellectual of that era did not grasp the far-reaching aspects of Babbage’s work, who couldn’t fund its construction appropriately.
One person who actually had understood Babbage’s work was Luigi Menabrea, an Italian engineer who had attended a lecture Babbage had given at the University of Turin in 1840. He wrote down the lecture and published it in French, the language the majority of scientific papers was written in, back then. When Babbage asked Ada to translate it into English, she added her own notes. One of these describes in depth an algorithm to calculate the Bernoulli numbers. She is considered, and rightfully so, the first computer programmer. And her work is even more impressive when you consider that she didn’t even have the machine to test her algorithm on.
Unfortunately, Ada Lovelace died prematurely in 1852. She was just 36 years old. However short may her life have been, her contributions to computing didn’t die with her. Her story is one of human ingenuity and reminds us that women can give, have given and will continue to give important advancements in the fields of mathematics and computing.