Lovelace's diagram from Note G, the first published computer algorithm


11th Oct 2016 is Ada Lovelace Day (ALD). It is an international day of celebration of women’s achievements in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). The day aims to increase the profile of women in STEM and thereby create new role models who will encourage more girls into STEM careers. One way of doing this is through providing resources for schools. It also aims to support women currently working in STEM.

Arguably less well known (and less credited) than Charles Babbage ‘the father of computers’, Ada nevertheless made significant contributions to work on his early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. It is widely accepted that her work includes what is recognised as the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine. Therefore, it is argued, Lovelace can be considered the first computer programmer in history.

Born Augusta Ada Bryon on 10 Dec 1815 to the poet Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Milbanke, Lady Wentworth she was never to know her famous father personally- he left his wife and died abroad 8 years later. Ada married William King in 1835 and he was made Earl of Lovelace in 1838, where upon Ada became Countess of Lovelace.

Portrait of Ada Lovelace
Portrait of Ada Lovelace

It is often stated that her mother encouraged Ada’s mathematical talents as she believed it to be a rational pursuit that would keep her from developing like her father, eccentric and (in her view) insane. Ada described her approach to her work as “poetical science” and herself as an “Analyst & Metaphysician”. Her circle included Charles Dickens and Michael Faraday, perhaps reflecting her scientific talents and wider artist/social interests. Her mind-set of poetical science led her to ask questions about the Analytical Engine (as shown in her notes), for example in examining how individuals and society relate to technology as a collaborative tool. This was a unique approach.

Lovelace first met Babbage in June 1833 at the age of 18 through their mutual friend, and her private tutor, Mary Somerville. This begun a friendship and relationship based upon shared interests and talents. Between 1842 and 1843, Ada translated an article by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea on the engine. This she supplemented with an elaborate set of published Notes. These notes contain an algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine. It is this that is considered to be the first complete computer program, designed to use the engine to generate the mathematical sequence known as Bernoulli Numbers (see top image). She also developed a vision of the capability of computers to go beyond mere calculating or number work, while many others, including Babbage himself, focused only on those capabilities. She died on 27 Nov 1852 and at her request she was buried next to her father; it seemed she remained fascinated by him until the last.

Her legacy is not without controversy, both in her personal life (though that is not for this blog!) and professional life. Allan Bromley, in his article Difference and Analytical Engines wrote:

All but one of the programs cited in her notes had been prepared by Babbage from three to seven years earlier. The exception was prepared by Babbage for her, although she did detect a ‘bug’ in it. Not only is there no evidence that Ada ever prepared a program for the Analytical Engine, but her correspondence with Babbage shows that she did not have the knowledge to do so.

Other Babbage scholars have made similar assertions that his work was the key to unlocking the computer, stating that the initial programs for his Analytical Engine were written by him (although the majority were never published). Bromley notes several dozen sample programs prepared by Babbage between 1837 and 1840, all substantially predating Lovelace’s notes. Whatever the extent of her contribution, it surely cannot be doubted that she was a women of talent and she has had a lasting impact which is significant in itself. It must also be remembered, that she had against her the weight of Victorian expectation as to what pursuits a women of her stature should undertake.

Her legacy is vast. The computer language Ada, created on behalf of the United States Department of Defense, was named after Lovelace. The reference manual for the language was approved on 10 Dec 1980 and the Department of Defense Military Standard for the language, MIL-STD-1815, was given the number of the year of her birth. Since 1998 the British Computer Society has awarded a medal in her name and in 2008 initiated an annual competition for women students of computer science. In the UK the BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium, the annual conference for women undergraduates is named after Lovelace. The Ada Initiative is a non-profit organisation dedicated to increasing the involvement of women in the free culture and open source movements. Institutions, and even a journal series, are also named after her.

You can follow Ada Lovelace Live! on Twitter from 6.30pm today. Or read how her legacy has impacted Dr Sheila Kanani of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Archives, Institution of Mechanical Engineering





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