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Ada Lovelace, 19th Century Computer Scientist

19 Oct 2015 by Teresa Meek

October 19th is Ada Lovelace Day and, across the globe, people will be hosting events to celebrate the achievements of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).

So who was Ada Lovelace?

An English lady born in December 1815, Ada was the child of the famous Romantic poet Lord George Gordon Byron. But she may have inherited her mathematical gifts from her mother, Byron’s wife Ann Isabella (Annabella) Milbank, who was fascinated by the subject.

After less than a year, Annabella left the marriage amid scandalous rumors of ill treatment, violence and infidelity. She took Ada with her.

A scientific education

Annabella provided Ada with a rigorous education in science, logic and mathematics —perhaps partly because she was interested in these subjects herself, but also because she didn’t want her daughter to inherit her father’s poetic but violent temperament.

It was very unusual for women to obtain a scientific education at the time, and when Ada developed headaches, she was discouraged from pursuing the subject. But it was too late — her passion had taken hold.

Ada’s tutors included former Cambridge professors. She excelled in math and loved machines, and Byron called her “the princess of parallelograms.” She was also inventive. In her free time, she created designs for boats and steam-powered flying machines.

The Babbage machine

When she was 18, Ada met Charles Babbage, an eminent mathematician who invented the idea of a programmable computer.

At age 19, Ada was married to William King, Earl of Lovelace. She had three children, but continued to pursue her interest in science and math, and began working with Babbage, with whom she became close friends. Babbage later described her as “that enchantress who has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of sciences and has grasped it with a force, which few masculine intellects could have exerted over it.”

Babbage envisioned and described — but never built — something he called a “difference engine,” later renamed an “analytical engine.” It was a machine that would automate calculations. Now known as the Babbage engine, the machine was assembled according to his specifications in 2002, 153 years after he invented it. It worked perfectly and is now considered by many to be the first computer.

Ada was Babbage’s assistant, corresponding with him regularly and helping him with the machine’s development. She helped him obtain grants for it and wrote a detailed article that helped publicize it.

A programmer with a unique vision

But perhaps her most important contribution was creating some of the instructions to make the machine work. As a result, she is sometimes called the first computer programmer.

Babbage’s complex machine had more than 50,000 components. It relied on input from perforated punch cards encoded with information and a “mill” that provided instructions for sequencing numbers. Its memory stored more than 1,000 numbers that could stretch to 50 digits in length.

Babbage intended to use the machine to create a trigonometric navigation table for the British Navy. It would have worked if the machine had attracted enough money to be built.

But Ada’s foresight extended even beyond Babbage’s vision, which many people saw as impossible at the time. In addition to performing mathematical computations, Ada realized that computers could someday be used to write music, produce graphics and further science.

Ada died of cancer in 1852, when she was just 36. Her legacy serves as inspiration to women everywhere that their contributions to math and science can be every bit as important as men’s, and they can succeed even in a society that believes otherwise.

Get more inspiration from other women whose contributions in STEM have helped bring about major advancements.