Born in 1815, the daughter of the famous Romantic poet Lord Byron (the man who gave us Byronic heroes and beautiful lines like “Adversity is the first path to truth“), Ada, Countess of Lovelace was a truly extraordinary woman.
Although her friend and collaborator, British Mathematician Charles Babbage, might be recognised as “the father of computers”, Lovelace is regarded as the world’s first computer programmer.
She started working with Babbage as a teenager and had a strong friendship and working relationship with him. It is the pair’s work on the Analytical Engine, an early general-purpose mechanical computer, that has gained them recognition.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Lovelace (or at least one of the top five!) is that she managed to design an algorithm for a machine that didn’t exist. Indeed, Babbage never completed the construction of the Analytics Engine and it was almost one hundred years later that general purpose computers were actually built. It is this extraordinary skill that earned Lovelace the title of the first computer programmer.
“The more I study, the more insatiable do I feel my genius for it to be.”
She went on to demonstrate what a truly brilliant “genius” she had by recognising the potential for the Analytics Engine beyond simply mathematics that Babbage and others forecast. In her notes, Lovelace wrote about the possibility of creating codes that would allow the machine to handle letters as well as numbers, and suggested a method for series of instructions to be repeated by the machine (now known as looping).
Despite her now hugely important publications on the Analytical Engine, Lovelace was largely overlooked in her lifetime. It wasn’t until her notes were used by Alan Turing in his work on modern computers in the 1940s that her genius was finally recognised. As the creators of Ava Lovelace day say, “Her thwarted potential, and her passion and vision for technology, have made her a powerful symbol for modern women in technology.”
Lovelace has been portrayed in a range of fictional accounts of her life and work, but the most exciting has to be The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, a graphic novel by Sydney Padua which includes lines taken from general correspondence between Babbage and Lovelace. Definitely a recommended read.