March 24, 2009 by D Stack
Lady Ada Lovelace
Today, March 24th, is Ada Lovelace Day, a day of international blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. The idea is for bloggers to profile inspiring women, dead or alive, in technological fields. It is named in honor of Ada Lovelace, traditionally considered the first computer programmer.
I’d love to be super-clever and profile someone other than Ada Lovelace and I will have a brief second profile after the profile of her, but the truth of the matter is Ada Lovelace has been an inspiration to me since I first encountered her in the spring of 1992 while in my junior year as a Computer Science and Engineering major at the University of Connecticut. It was an odd encounter since she had been dead for nearly 150 years by this point. She was a character in a work of fiction: The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. The Difference Engine took place in an alternate 19th century where the computer revolution happened a century early. To be honest, I wasn’t too crazy about the novel as a story, but it had some amazing concepts. Being a university student, it wasn’t too hard to do a little digging about things like the real Difference Engine and Lady Ada Lovelace – but it was a lot harder than it is now – no web, no wikipedia, etc. That’s the reason this post is a little more of the “gushing” variety – her contributions to computer science are pretty easy to find on wikipedia and other places. Mind you I’ll give some pertinent facts, but I also want to talk about how they impacted me – and my whole industry – and you too, since you are reading this on a computer.
To understand Lady Ada Lovelace you first have to understand Charles Babbage. In 1822 he began building a mechanical computer called the difference engine. It was designed to compute values for polynomial functions automatically. Back then a computer was a person who performed computations, typically by the use of tables. As you might imagine, this process was quite prone to error. The difference engine was designed to automate this. It was a hard-coded device – in other words, though you could enter different values, it was not programmable to do different things. Think of a simple calculator you can buy in a drug store or pull up in Windows or Mac OS/X. Mind you it was huge and never completed (though a model of it was eventually built in the 20th century per Babbage’s specifications and it did work as he claimed it would).
Like many visionaries, Babbage began working on his next project without finishing his current one. Enter the analytical engine. It was even bigger and had equivalents to things that most people associate with computers; for example, it had something roughly analogous to a hard drive. And it was programmable – not by a keyboard and monitor, but with punch cards (1837, well over a century before the first computer monitor!).
This is where Lady Ada Lovelace enters the picture. Let us back up a little bit to introduce her as a person, though sadly there is not much written on who she was. She was the only legitimate child (he had many others) of the romantic poet and member of the House of Lords, Lord George Byron. She was born Augusta Ada Byron in 1815. She had no relationship with her father and her parents separated soon after her birth, Ada staying with her mother.
By the age of seventeen her mathematical skills became evident and were her life’s obsession. She had a variety of tutors including Augustus De Morgan, another major figure in computer science. De Morgan created a set of laws for the series of 1s and 0s that computers use (even the most advanced computer today breaks everything down to 1s and 0s). In 1837 she married William King who became the first earl of Lovelace (hence her name and title). Even after her marriage mathematics remained her passion.
As a mathematician she met and corresponded with several mathematicians, including Charles Babbage. She corresponded with him on both his difference engine and his analytical engine. In 1842 and 1843 she translated the Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea’s memoir on the analytical engine. In so doing she attached a series of notes to the memoir. In these notes she included an algorithm (i.e. a design or plan) for using the analytical engine to produce Bernoulli numbers. Bernoulli numbers are complicated and beyond the scope of this article – suffice it to say they are quite complicated. What she did, in effect, was write the world’s first computer program, realizing how to use the analytical engine to produce them.
Why do I find this significant? The first machines which we would recognize as computers came into prominence before, during, and after World War II. Many of the engineers and mathematicians who built them were familiar with Babbage and Ada’s work. While the development of the computer program may seem obvious now, she was the one who did it first, and there are many inventions that seem obvious that went undiscovered for centuries or longer (for example the wheel was never used in the Americas until the arrival of Europeans and European plows were centuries behind those of Chinese plows, despite needing only a simple innovation). Someone had to write the first computer program and she was the one who did it. Even today women in the fields of math or the sciences are all too rare – to achieve such an accomplishment in the mid-19th century is all the more noteworthy. The computer you are reading this on uses programs, as does the server, router, and switches that sends this blog to you. You can’t get away from them and she did it first. I think she is an important inspiration and more people should know of her accomplishments. Hopefully that will help inspire more girls to pursue and enter into mathematical and scientific fields in adulthood.
On a personal level I also live with a remarkable women who is in a technical field. My wife would be embarassed if I wrote a long article about her, but I did secure permission to at least mention her. I met my wife at UConn shortly before we both graduated. She was a chemistry major. After graduation she worked as a chemist doing R&D work, helping to develop batteries, fuel cells for cars (well over a decade before hybrid cars were trendy), and various sensors. After our second child was born she went back to school to pursue her second Master’s degree, this time in education. She currently in her second year as a full-time chemistry teacher. She teaches high school chemistry at a vocational technical school with students primairly from an urban setting. She’s found it extremely rewarding, having inspired some of her students to pursue careers or degrees in the sciences. Many of these students are girls and/or from minority groups, giving her an even greater sense of accomplishment, as the sciences and technological fields still tend to be dominated by men of European and Asian descent. It’s a joy seeing her looking forward to going to work every day (well, nearly every day – don’t let anyone convince you the life of a teacher is easy).