Meet Countess Ada Lovelace, The World's First Computer Programmer

Happy 200th Birthday to the ‘enchantress of numbers.’

Did you know the person who wrote the first algorithm to be performed by a machine – aka a computer program – was a woman? And that she did this way back in 1843?

In a time before computers and an era when women were only supposed to get married and have babies, how did a woman accomplish something so groundbreaking?

As with many things in life, it starts with her parents.

On December 10, 1815, Augusta Ada Byron was born in London to Annabella Milbanke and Lord Byron. Yep, that Lord Byron, the “She walks in beauty, like the night” poet. While her dad was a creative type, her mom was highly intelligent and passionate about math and sciences. In fact, Lord Byron called his wife the “Princess of Parallelograms.”

Unfortunately, it was not a happy marriage, as Annabella suspected Byron of having an affair with his half-sister.

So they split up when Ada was only a month old, and she never saw her father again.

Annabella was convinced the cray cray ran in Byron’s family and was obsessed with suppressing that side of Ada, so she kept her daughter from her father’s creative interests and immersed Ada in math and science from the time she was four. She hired well-respected mathematicians and scientists as private tutors, and they were all blown away by Ada’s math skills.

But despite her mother’s efforts, she was still her father’s daughter and creativity ran through Ada’s veins. When she was twelve, she decided she wanted to fly. She used her math and science skills to analyze birds, and her creative side to consider materials that could serve as wings. She even wrote and illustrated a guide called “Flyology.” But before she had a chance to become the first aviator, her mother made her abandon her fanciful project to return to her studies.

But this wouldn’t be the last time Ada combined the creativity and mathematical ability she inherited from her very different parents.

On June 5, 1833, the seventeen-year-old Ada attended a fabulous London party where she met Charles Babbage, a renowned mathematician and professor at the University of Cambridge. He entertained the crowd with tales of his Difference Engine, a machine he’d designed to produce reliable, error-free math calculations.

Ada was an instant fan girl. In fact, she was so fascinated by the idea of his math machine that she later wrote him asking for the blueprints so she could better understand it. Babbage was impressed with her intelligence and curiosity and became her mentor. They exchanged letters for almost twenty years, discussing math and computing and generally pushing each other toward bigger and better theories. They were kind of like the Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs of the mid-1800s.

Meanwhile, when Ada was nineteen, she married William King, the Earl of Lovelace, and that’s how she picked up the totally awesome moniker of the Countess of Lovelace. She then popped out three kids ... But despite that, plus suffering through a variety of illnesses, Ada kept up with her math studies.

Babbage, meanwhile, couldn’t get funding to build a working version of his Difference Engine, so he moved on to the bigger and better Analytical Engine. This bad boy was the design for the first programmable computer, with punch cards for input and output, conditional branching, and separate memory, all to be powered by a hand crank or steam. Babbage traveled Europe promoting his idea, trying to get money to build his behemoth.

Luigi Menabrea, an engineer, listened to Babbage’s lectures at the University of Turin and then wrote and published a paper about this Analytical Engine in French. Ada was commissioned to translate the paper from French to English (because of course she was fluent in French, too). When Babbage read it, he was like, “Girl, you know more about this machine than that Italian dude, you should add your own thoughts.” So she did.

She added a notes section that tripled the length of the paper! Apparently the Countess had a lot of thoughts about this computing machine, and they were pretty brilliant.

One section of these notes is credited with being the first computer program – it was a detailed plan for the punch cards to weave a long sequence of Bernoulli numbers. There is some debate about how much of this calculation was her work versus Babbage’s, but Babbage himself credited her with correcting "a grave error" in his calculation and called her “the enchantress of numbers.”

What is not up for debate is Ada’s vision of what computers could be. This is where the poetic imagination from her dad combined with the analytical logic from her mom, enabling her to foresee uses for computers that were a hundred years ahead of her time.

Babbage was only focused on numbers for his machine, but Ada saw its true potential beyond a mere calculator. Her notes state an analytical engine could go beyond numbers, so that anything that could be converted into numbers – like music, language, or images – could then be manipulated by computer algorithms. She predicted that machines like the Analytical Engine could be used to compose music, produce graphics, and be useful to science. It bears repeating:

Sadly, Ada died on November 27, 1852, from uterine cancer at the too young age of 36. But her badass legacy lives on. The Department of Defense developed a software language called Ada in the late seventies, and October 13 is Ada Lovelace Day, dedicated to learning about and raising the profile of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Another bummer is that Babbage ran into financial problems, so a working version of his Analytical Engine was never built. But can you imagine if he did build it and Ada had lived to write code for it? With the computer age fast-forwarded one hundred years, we might have flying cars and colonies on Mars by now. Or maybe we’d already be destroyed by Skynet. Either way, thanks Ada -- and happy birthday!


VMAs 2017