Throwback Thursday is a look back at some of the great minds in the history of computer science that have inspired Little Web Giants. This week’s story on Ada Lovelace was put together by Valentine, with Paul and Melanie‘s help.
Over the past 70 years « Lady Lovelace » has become an icon for women in technology. Why?
No, Ada Lovelace didn’t invent the algorithm. No, she didn’t invent the binary language, nor did she invent the computing machine. Nevertheless she is generally perceived as the mother of computer programming. Her entire research was based on the incredible Analytical Engine invented by the famous Charles Babbage.
She is to computer science what Van Gogh is to art history. While she struggled with drug addiction and he with alcoholism, they were both driven by passion, courage and dedication. Like Vincent Van Gogh, Ada Lovelace’s work wasn’t recognised during her life, but she was a pioneer who inspired generations to come.
The world would wait nearly a century for Alan Turing to bring to light Ada Lovelace’s research. Turing is commonly seen as the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence. As he was working on decoding German communications during World War II, he discovered Ada Lovelace’s notes on the Babbage machine. Reading them he discovered she was the first person to publish an algorithm intended to be carried out by a computer. This discovery was an important source for his own work on the first modern computers in the 1940s.
Enchantress of Numbers
Ada Lovelace, born in 1815 as Augusta Ada Byron, was the daughter of infamous poet Lord Byron. A few weeks after her birth, Byron and Lovelace’s mother Anne Isabella Byron (née Milbanke) separated. The young Ada never saw her father again. Her mother made Ada rigorously study mathematics and sciences. She believed that it would protect Ada from developing her father’s temperament – moody and unpredictable – and lead her towards more self-control.
She turned out to be very talented with numbers and languages. Born into an aristocratic family, she received an excellent education provided by eminent instructors, such as William Frend, social reformer, and Mary Somerville, astronomer and mathematician.
In 1835 aged 19, Lovelace was married to William King and became Lady Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, henceforth known simply as Ada Lovelace or Lady Lovelace.
While she was always passionate about mathematics, meeting Charles Babbage was a revelation for her. His first machine, the Difference Engine, fascinated her and they soon became friends. In the early 1840s she was asked to translate Luigi Menabrea’s article on Babbage’s second machine, the Analytical Engine, into English. At the request of Babbage she appended her personal notes alongside the translation. The Analytical Engine was the first design for a general purpose computer, which used punch cards for input and output.
Lovelace clearly had a deeper understanding of the machine than Menabrea, and began to cultivate her own theories on its potential. Her notes became much longer than the original article. Assisted by Babbage, she composed seven sections labelled alphabetically, in which she described and explained the complexity of the machine in all its detail. In note G she developed an algorithm to compute Bernoulli numbers (elegantly described in this paper by John C. Baez). Charles Babbage was impressed by her intellect and analytic skills and he dubbed her “The Enchantress of Numbers”.
Difficulties in realising Babbage’s computer
Unfortunately the Analytical Engine remained a theoretical project and would never be constructed. If it had been built, Ada’s algorithm would have worked and that is the reason why she is recognised nowadays as the first computer programmer. In 1986, her name was even given to a new programming language created by a team under contract to the United States Department of Defence: the language Ada.
Nevertheless biographers are not unanimous about Ada Lovelace’s contribution. Her collaboration with Charles Babbage was very close and it is not clear how much Babbage helped her in writing her notes. Lovelace’s detractors say that in the end Babbage was the one who created the Analytical Engine and wrote the fundamentals for its calculations.
In any case, Ada’s truly visionary ideas lie in her speculations about the Analytical Engine. Her theory suggested that the machine ‘might act upon other things besides number…the Engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent’. She thought that numbers could be more than just quantities and instead have a symbolic value, allowing the manipulation of any type of data. She is the first to envision the potential of computers and further developments, including computer-generated music.
“The more I study, the more insatiable do I feel my genius for it to be.”
She was passionate, a hard worker and she truly believed in the Analytical Engine and in the programs she wrote. With Babbage being unsuccessful raising money to build the machine, she started to gamble in the hope she could fund the research. Instead she ended up in debt. She died at the age of 36 of cancer and her understanding of computers remained unappreciated for a century.
In putting together this piece, I used a number of different resources. Thanks go to:
- the Computer History Museum for their summary of the life of Ada Lovelace;
- Biography.com for their great biography of Lovelace;
- Hannah Fry and the BBC for their exploration of Lovelace’s legacy;
- Suw Charman-Anderson for founding Ada Lovelace day and her wonderfully detailed outline of the Victorian computing visionary;
- the San Diego Supercomputer Center for their brief bio;
- Miss Cellania and Mental Floss for their piece on the first computer programmer;
- John Walker for hosting Lovelace’s translation of Menabrea’s Sketch of the Analytical Engine;
- John C. Baez for a clear description of Bernoulli numbers (and a comical commentary on how they got their name);
- Bruce Collier for his work reevaluating the legacy of Lovelace; and
- History-computer.com for their article about Ada Lovelace.
Next week, Throwback Thursday will take you into the world of “Security Princess” Parisa Tabriz.