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Ada, Countess of Lovelace was born almost 200 years ago but her name lives on. In the 1970s a computer language was named after her in recognition of her status as the first computer programmer and in 2009 Ada Lovelace Day was inaugurated to celebrate the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. Here, for Ada Lovelace Day 2012, we tell the story of her, tragically short, life.
There is an essential unfairness in the reporting of the history of computing. The software people are nearly always passed over in preference for the hardware people. We tend to remember the pioneers who built the first, second and third computers and made breakthroughs in electronics but what were the first programs ever written? And who wrote them?
It is always dangerous to claim that anyone was the first anything but I think that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the very first programmer was Ada, Countess of Lovelace.
Augusta Ada King Lovelace
In the early years of computing there wasn't a clear distinction between the hardware and the software. The verb "to program" was very similar to the verb "to solder"! This makes it very difficult to untangle the hardware from the software in the works of the early pioneers.
In the case of Ada the fact that she was involved in the invention of programming is mixed up with the design of the very first computer hardware. Babbage is generally credited with the design, if not the building, of the first computer and Ada might be described as the software side of the project. Babbage's genius and the trials and tribulation of the hardware have tended to overshadow Ada's story but it is important not to overcompensate by accrediting Ada with more insight than is due to her.
Ada was the only (legitimate) daughter of the poet, Lord Byron. Her father separated from her mother two months after she was born and left England for good. As a consequence Ada never knew her father and his only real influence on her life was the scandal of his conduct. Enough about Byron, there are plenty of books and articles about his life.
Ada was educated by private tutors and for some reason she formed a strong attachment to the sciences and mathematics in particular. At the time the distinction between the arts and sciences wasn't quite so strong. It was perfectly reasonable to be the child of a poet and a mathematician. Ada's mother was something of a mathematician herself, Byron referred to her as his "princess of the parallelograms".
The bias against women doing anything important was, however, very strong and you can detect a certain novelty value in the way the male scientists that she befriended regarded and promoted her work. You also need to keep in mind that Ada was rich and privileged and her confidence in her abilities borders on the conceited. I don't think I would have liked Ada but you never can tell, she had some of the characteristics that befit a programmer!
The influence of Babbage
Ada met Charles Babbage when she was still quite young (18). Whatever affections there may have been between Ada and Babbage, it is worth stating that he was a year older than Ada's mother and the relationship must have been a difficult one.
While on the subject of Ada's mother, she was present with her daughter at a demonstration of the partly finished difference engine - and understood what she saw. Her account of its workings clearly indicate that she was capable of understanding the mathematical content of the presentation as well:
"It raised several Nos. to the 2nd and 3rd powers, and extracted the root of a quadratic equation.."
but she didn't seem to understand its operating principles
"..I had but faint glimpses of the principles by which it worked..".
How different things are today when the pursuit of culture means anything but grubby science and technology!
Lady Byron seems to have enjoyed the demonstration but its effect on Ada lasted all her life. Ada not only understood the difference engine but also grasped its potential. De Morgan was with her and he writes:
"While other visitors gazed at the workings of the beautiful instrument with the sort of expression, and I dare say the sort of feeling, that some savages are said to have shown on first seeing a looking-glass or hearing a gun - if indeed, they had a strong an idea of its marvelousness - Miss Byron, young as she was, understood its working, and saw the great beauty of the invention."
You need to remember that the difference engine was a polished collection of brass cogs and indicators built to a precision that was still rare at the time.
As an interesting aside it seems that Lady Byron must rank as being on of the first people to write a description of an enumeration loop:
"For instance, the Machine would go on counting regularly, 1,2,3,4 etc - to 10,000.."