Ada Lovelace – Algorithm Ahoy!

10th Oct, 2017

| by writesolutions

A Programmer of Uncommon Pedigree and Peerage

Everyone knows that Ada Lovelace was the world’s first computer programmer. What not many people know however is the exact nature of her contribution – that she wrote the first machine algorithm.

Of course, someone had to be the first, but for a woman it was no mean achievement in the 1840s. A brilliant mathematician, Lovelace seized rare opportunities that were denied to most women of her time, and in doing so, etched her name in the annals of history.

Although Ada Lovelace was celebrated English poet Lord George Gordon Byron’s only legitimate child, he was hardly an exemplary father to her. The first words he spoke to his newly-born daughter were, “Oh! What an implement of torture have I acquired in you!” The marriage between the erratic, abusive and womanizing poet and Lovelace’s mother, Lady Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron, was brief and unhappy.

Then, pray how did this young woman get the opportunity to show the world her true talents in the 19th century? Mathematical intelligence was not the only latent talent Ada had in her. She had several other accomplishments as well, as she came from a privileged background. Her parents were members of the aristocracy, gifted and well-educated. They were unusually progressive and forward-thinking.

At her mother’s insistence, Ada could had a retinue of tutors to polish her mathematics and science. These subjects were not standard fare for women of her time, but her mother believed that rigorous studies would safeguard Ada from her father’s moody and unpredictable temperament. As an extreme measure, Ada was also compelled to lie still for extended periods of time because her mother believed it would help her develop self-control.

In 1833, Lovelace’s mentor, Mary Sommerville, introduced her to Charles Babbage, a renowned Professor of Mathematics and visionary who first dreamt of a gigantic calculating machine. Over time, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, both unconventional in their own, individual ways came close to become lifelong, committed friends.

Babbage described her as “that enchantress who has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects could have exerted over it,” or on another occasion, as “The Enchantress of Numbers.”

Ada was equally mesmerized by Babbage’s wit, charm and intelligence. At 17, she watched him demonstrate a most primitive form of the present-day computer. Smart as she was, she saw the machine’s immense potential to change the world, before anyone else did.

Although Babbage believed that the machines could only be used for numerical calculations, Ada ‘saw’ several other potential applications —including a clever manipulation of music, text, pictures and sounds. In one of her pieces, Ada wrote that the analytical engine “might act upon other things besides numbers…in abstract science of operations.”

No doubt, her ideas about computing were far ahead of her time — so ahead that it took nearly a century for technology to catch up. Initially in 1843, Ada’s notes on Babbage’s analytical engine did not draw any attention. Later when her views were republished in B.V. Bowden’s 1953 book “Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines,” critics and contemporaries began to sit up and take note.

That could be marked as the dawn of the computing era in the 1950s, or the rise of the digital age as Ada had visualized it.

During the 1970s, the U.S. Department of Defense developed a high-order computer programming language to supersede the hundreds of different ones that were then in military use. When U.S. Navy Commander Jack Cooper suggested naming the new language “Ada” in honor of Lovelace in 1979, the proposal was unanimously approved.

In 1835, Ada married William King, who became the Earl of Lovelace, three years later. She then took the title of the Countess of Lovelace. They shared their love of horses and had three children. From all available accounts, it appears that he supported his wife’s academic endeavors. Consequently, Ada and her husband socialized with many luminaries of their time, including scientist Michael Faraday and writer Charles Dickens.

Ada’s health suffered, however, after a bout of cholera in 1837. She had lingering problems with asthma and her digestive system. Doctors prescribed painkillers, such as laudanum and opium, but her health started deteriorating and she reportedly experienced violent mood swings and hallucinations.

Ada died of cancer in 1852, when she was barely 36. More than 150 years later, we remember her contributions to science and engineering in the celebration of Ada Lovelace Day on October 13. It was first celebrated in 2009 (in March), it is a day set aside to learn about women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

 

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Radhika Sachdev

Content Strategist

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