Adventures in Feministory: Ada Lovelace, First Computer Programmer

portrait of Ada Lovelace with Princess Leia-style hair, flower and black lace headpiece, and purple dress with puffed sleeves and bustle, holding fan

Lady Ada King, Countess of Lovelace—better known as Ada Lovelace—described herself as an analyst and metaphysician in her only published article. Seeing as how that article included what is cited as the first computer program and the first incidence of computers being assigned abilities beyond mathematical functions, her description rings true. Born in 1815 to Lord Byron, moody English poet, and Anne Isabelle Milbanke, “princess of parallelograms,” Ada was primed to develop what she once called “poetical science.”

Although Ada was Byron’s only legitimate child, he had virtually no relationship with her. Frustrated and at times frightened by the poet’s mood swings and erratic behavior, Ada’s mother separated from her husband shortly after Ada’s birth; Lord Byron then left England when Ada was only a few months old, never to return. Milbanke, who was herself a talented mathematician, insisted on giving Ada an intensive arithmetical education—while she also allowed her daughter to pursue music, she opposed excessive studies of that which she considered “poetical.” Ada was indeed skilled with numbers, so much that she outstripped a number of her tutors’ abilities, but she often devoted her skills to more whimsical applications than her mother preferred, such as designing flying machines at the age of thirteen.  

In her late teens, Ada found a mentor and friend in Mary Somerville, who in the 1820s had published English translations and explanations of Laplace’s mathematics. At one of Somerville’s dinner parties, Ada met Charles Babbage, and was intrigued by his explanation of the Difference Engine that he had designed and partially built. Her interest in his project developed into a close friendship that involved the two of them exchanging letters and advising one another on their work; their correspondence has led to some controversy over how much credit each of them deserves for ideas presented in Ada’s published piece.

In 1835, Ada married William King, and during the next five years they became the parents of three children and Countess and Earl of Lovelace. Her academic work was for the most part put on hold during that time, but she remained knowledgeable about Babbage’s projects, especially about his new designs for the Analytical Engine. In 1842, an Italian engineer published an article about the Analytical Engine in French, and Babbage suggested that Ada publish a translation of the article and add her own notes about her understanding of the engine and its functions. Ada spent months on the project, and finished with notes three times the length of the original article. The notes were comprised of ideas that ended up being at least one hundred years ahead of their time: Ada wrote what is considered the first computer program, a stepwise sequence of operations using punch cards to calculate Bernoulli numbers; and she seems to have been the first to predict that computers could produce graphics, and “might act upon other things besides number…the Engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”

After publishing her first article, Ada had plans to write more, but she was plagued by vices and illness for the remaining years of her short life. Due to her overindulgence in wine and opiates and an addiction to gambling, she left behind thousands of pounds’ worth of debt when she died from cancer at age 36. Unfortunately, she also died in relative academic obscurity. Feeling that her mathematical skills did not befit a woman of her social standing, Ada had signed her notes A.A.L. While her close friends and family knew and recognized her genius, the wider world only became aware of her identity about thirty years after her death.

In contrast, during the past thirty years Ada’s accomplishments have garnered increasing recognition. In 1980, the U.S. Department of Defense named its computer language Ada in her honor, and in 2009, Suw Charman-Anderson declared the first Ada Lovelace Day, where people are encouraged to blog and spread the word about their favorite women working in science and technology. There are also some great webcomics about Ada, including one by Sydney Padua and another by Kate Beaton. While not exactly poetic or scientific, works such as these reflect the combination of analytical and metaphysical thought that Ada brought to the very early age of computers.

Previously: Jeanette Rankin, Isadora Duncan

by Bianca Butler
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