Design Con 2015

Ada Lovelace is born, December 10, 1815

-December 10, 2014

Ada Lovelace, arguably the first computer programmer, was born on December 10, 1815.

Ada LovelaceLovelace was an English mathematician and writer chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage's early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. Her notes on the engine include what is considered the first algorithm intended to be processed by a machine and foreshadowed the future of advanced electronics beyond mere calculating machines.

Few women were noted mathematicians in Lovelace’s time. In a roundabout way, Lovelace’s success was stirred by her unfit mother.

Born Augusta Ada Byron in London, she was the only child of the poet Lord Byron and Anne Isabella "Annabella" Byron. Lovelace’s father left her mother one month after she was born.

Although laws at the time gave full custody to fathers, Lord Byron resolved himself of this and Annabella became Lovelace’s sole parent.

Once her parents had separated and her father moved to Greece, Annabella made claims that Lord Byron was mentally unbalanced. This is believed to be in part so that she could maintain custody of her daughter, although she had no interest in being a single parent and is known to have abandoned Lovelace as a child on many occasions.

To be socially acceptable, Annabella kept up the appearance of a concerned, doting mother and sought to root out any insanity in Lovelace of which she accused Lord Byron. This was one of the reasons that Lovelace was taught mathematics from an early age.

After her famous work with Babbage, Lovelace continued to work on other projects. In 1844, she would comment to a friend about her desire to create a mathematical model for how the brain gives rise to thoughts and nerves to feelings. She would never achieve this, however, because of concerns about her own potential lunacy.

Many still challenge Lovelace’s place in history as the first computer programmer and her association with Babbage’s work. But Babbage, himself, was impressed by Lovelace’s intellect and writing skills, describing her as "the enchantress of numbers."

After marrying and becoming Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, and bearing two children, she died from uterine cancer at the age of 36 in 1852.

In 1953, more than 100 years after her death, Lovelace’s notes on Babbage's Analytical Engine were republished. The notes describe an algorithm for the engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. This is considered the first algorithm ever specifically tailored for implementation on a computer. The notes also emphasized the difference between the Analytical Engine and previous calculating machines, particularly its ability to be programmed to solve problems of any complexity. The engine has since been recognized as an early model for a computer and her notes as a description of a computer and software.

Her work and its significance continues to be honored in modern times. For example, the computer language Ada, created on behalf of the United States Department of Defense, was named after Lovelace. The DOD approved the reference manual for the language on December 10, 1980, and the DOD Military Standard for the language, "MIL-STD-1815," was given the number of the year of her birth.

In 1998, the British Computer Society began awarding a medal in her name and in 2008 initiated an annual competition for women students of computer science.

Lovelace is remembered each year on "Ada Lovelace Day," an annual event celebrated in mid-October aiming to raise the profile of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) professions.

She is also remembered through the Ada Initiative, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing the involvement of women in the free culture and open source movements.

Google celebrated what would have been Lovelace’s 197th birthday (December 10, 2012) with the below Google Doodle.


Also see:

For more moments in tech history, see this blog. EDN strives to be historically accurate with these postings. Should you see an error, please notify us.

Editor's note: This article was originally posted on December 10, 2012 and edited on December 10, 2014.

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