A poet, a programmer, a pioneer. On October 14th, the STEM community comes together to celebrate the success and achievements of the world’s first computer programmer. Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace — more commonly known as “Ada Lovelace” — was born in London on December 10, 1815. From an early age, she conveyed an astonishing aptitude for mathematics and embodied a true Maker spirit, which together, led Ada to discover a multitude of computer concepts.
Unlike those before her, the Countess was a champion for Charles Babbage’s calculating machine, the Analytical Engine. Ada is commemorated for having the foresight that an instrument of this nature held such significant and scientific uses.
Ada had an unusual upbringing for an aristocratic girl in the mid-1800s. Her mother had insisted that she be instructed by tutors on mathematics and science — such challenging subjects were not all that common for women at the time.
A Young Maker
Ada not only showed an astonishing aptitude for math and science from a young age, but possessed an innovation streak as well. In fact, she designed her very own flying machine before the age of 13. This inventive spark was noted by her tutors, who predicted that she would become “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence.”
A Teen Analytical Machine
At age 17, Ada was introduced to Charles Babbage at a dinner hosted by friend Mary Somerville. Upon learning of Babbage’s prototype for his Difference Engine, her interest was thoroughly piqued. In 1841, Babbage published his findings in Turin, Italy (the home of the Arduino and its recently-announced open apartment!). During a nine-month period of 1842-43, Ada translated the Italian article and sent Babbage the translated report on his newest proposed machine with her own notes — which came out to be three times the length of the original piece.
A Big Idea
Long before the days of the ZX Spectrum, Apple I and Atari 2600… there was the 19th century. While computers may have existed as a concept in the mid-1800s, it had yet to come to fruition and materialize into something tangible. One of the first revolutionary ideas for “the computer” was the Analytical Engine, a proposal for a clockwork counting machine conceived by Babbage himself. Ada is credited with a vision on extending the capabilities of these sort of machines to go well beyond mere calculation; in order to facilitate this, she developed an algorithm for Babbage’s engine that would calculate a sequence of rational numbers.
In Ada’s own words, “The purpose which that engine has been specially intended and adapted to fulfil, is the computation of nautical and astronomical tables… The Analytical Engine, on the contrary, can either add, subtract, multiply or divide with equal facility; and performs each of these four operations in a direct manner, without the aid of any of the other three.”
The Analytical Machine was also able to automatically use results of previous calculations in future calculations. This and a number of other components made this machine surprisingly similar in architecture to how modern day computers work.
Ahead of Her Time
Like many inventors, Ada was not recognized as a true visionary during her lifetime, as it would take many years until her ideas would influence the world. Her notes were reintroduced to the world by B.Y. Bowden, who republished them in Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines in 1953. Since then, Ada has received many posthumous honors for her incredible work.
In 1980, the U.S. Department of Defense named the computer language “Ada” after Lovelace herself. (Fun fact: The military standard for the language, “MIL-STD-1815″ was given the number of the year of her birth.) Then, there is The Ada Initiative — a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering women in the tech industry to increase their involvement in the free culture and open source movement.
Today, we continue to see Ada’s influence on the ever-growing Maker Movement. Did you know Limor Fried of Adafruit Industries’ moniker ladyada was created to pay homage to Lady Ada Lovelace?
Ada Lovelace Day is all about shining the spotlight on the Maker’s achievement and inspiring more women into careers in the technology sector, as well as pursuit of STEM-related degrees.
From IBM President Ginni Rometty and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer to Oracle CEO Safra Catz and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, her influence continues to spawn a whole new generation of female tech leaders. Not to mention, a number leading lays are helping steward the DIY community, including Ayah Bdhei and Limor Fried — both of whom were recently named by Glamour Magazine to the “35 Women Under 35 Who Are Changing the Tech Industry” list.
Much like a modern-day Maker, Ada saw technology through the lens of humanities and culture, once writing, “We may say most aptly, that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.”