This March, we have been honoring influential women in technology and history as a part of Women’s History Month. Over the past few weeks, we have celebrated tech pioneers Dr. Shirley Jackson, Dr. Erna Hoover and Rear Admiral Grace M. Hopper. As spring kicks into full swing and Women’s History Month comes to a close, we have one more exceptional lady to honor: Ada, Countess of Lovelace.
Born in 1815, Ada Lovelace was an English mathematician and writer who is primarily known for her landmark work on Charles Babbage’s proposed mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. Read on to learn more about the influential life of Ada Lovelace:
Ada Lovelace, born August Ada Byron, was the only legitimate child of the infamous poet Lord Byron. Ada demonstrated a natural proclivity for mathematics from an early age. Though math and science were not usually taught to women in the mid-1800s, Ada’s mother believed that rigorous study would prevent her from developing her father’s notoriously moody temperament.
Charles Babbage and the Analytical Engine
At the age of 17, Ada met the renowned mathematician and inventor, Charles Babbage. Babbage quickly became Ada’s mentor and friend. Babbage was a major source of inspiration for Ada; with Babbage’s help, Ada studied advanced mathematics at the University of London. Later, Babbage showed Ada his plans for a device called the Analytical Engine, a machine designed to handle complex calculations. Ada was fascinated by the Analytical Engine.
At one point, she translated an article on Babbage’s analytical engine written by Italian engineer Luigi Federico Menabrea for a Swiss journal. In addition to translating the original French text into English, Ada also added her own thoughts and ideas on the machine. Ada’s notes on the Analytical Engine were three times longer than the original article. In her notes, she described how codes could be created for the device to handle letters and symbols along with numbers. She also theorized a method for the machine to repeat a series of instructions. Today, this process is known as looping and is still used in computer programming. For this work, Ada is often considered to be the first computer programmer.
As is the case with many of the great minds in history, Ada’s genius was not fully appreciated in her own time. Her landmark work on the Analytical Engine received little attention while she was alive. The innovative nature of her work was not fully recognized until 1953, when B.V. Bowden reintroduced her notes in Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines, which finally recognized Ada for her considerable contribution to the field of computer science.
Since then, Ada has received many posthumous honors for her contribution to the field. In fact, the U.S. Department of Defense named a newly developed computer language “Ada” after her in 1980. Ada has been referred to as the “prophet of the computer age,” and her revolutionary insights still play a major role in the field of computer science to this day.
To learn more about some other influential women in technology, check out our previous Women in History posts: