Ada Lovelace, The World’s First Computer Programmer

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace was a Victorian countess, the first computer programmer AND the only legitimate child of Byron. What’s not to love? Enchantress of numbers, we salute you.

Dear Ada Lovelace,

Not nearly enough people know of your achievements – although, with the growth of Ada Lovelace Day (read our archived interview with Ada Lovelace Day founder Suw Charman-Anderson) you are now far more of a household name.

Those in the know recognise you as a Victorian hero, a charming hit at social balls, a countess, the only legitimate child of the poet Byron, friends with the leading writers and scientists of the time, a mathematician with unsurpassable logic skills and the world’s first computer progammer.

In terms of badassery, surely that’s enough to be getting on with? Enchantress of Numbers, we adore thee.

Love Mookychick xxx

Ada Lovelace Quotes:

“I never am really satisfied that I understand anything; because, understand it well as I may, my comprehension can only be an infinitesimal fraction of all I want to understand.”

“The Analytical Engine (Charles Babbage’s first computer except he never got round to building it) has no pretensions whatever to originate anything.It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis, but it has no power of anticipating any analytical revelations or truths. Its province is to assist us in making available what we are already acquainted with.”

Ada Lovelace is best known for:

Being the world’s first computer programmer in the Victorian era and writing programs – that is, manipulating symbols according to rules – for a machine that Babbage had not yet built (Babbage is widely recognised for building the first computer).

Ada Lovelace is least known for:

Ada Lovelace was taught by her mother to dislike all friends of her father, the rascally poet Lord Byron. By 1834, Ada was a regular at Court. She danced often and was able to charm many people and was described by most people as being dainty. However, John Hobhouse, Lord Byron’s friend, was the exception and he described her as “a large, coarse-skinned young woman but with something of my friend’s features, particularly the mouth”. Patronising (with an emphasise on the patriarchal aspect of the word), objectifying and rude. This impression of each other was not to last and they later became friends.

Mook factor:

A pinnacle of world-changing intellectualism, Ada Lovelace was the ultimate Bluestocking (a Victorian term used to denote clever and learned women. You can find out a little more by playing our feminist book quiz). She has set a template for all other non cis male geeks to follow.

Ada Lovelace passed away at the age of thirty-six, on 27 November 1852, from uterine cancer and bloodletting by her physicians.

If she had survived? Who knows what she might have gone on to achieve.

A short history of Ada Lovelace:

Ada Lovelace, born 10 December 1815, was the only child of the poet Lord Byron and his wife, Anne Isabella “Annabella” Milbanke. Byron, and many of those who knew Byron, expected that the baby would be “the glorious boy”, and there was some disappointment at the contrary news.

Ada was often ill, dating from her early childhood. At eight she experienced headaches that obscured her vision. In June 1829, she was paralysed after a bout of the measles. She was subjected to continuous bed rest for nearly a year. By 1831 she was able to walk with crutches.

Throughout her illnesses, Ada continued her education. Her mother’s obsession with rooting out any of the insanity of which she accused Lord Byron was one of the reasons that Ada was taught mathematics from an early age. From 1832, when she was seventeen, her remarkable mathematical abilities began to emerge, and her interest in mathematics continued to dominate her life after her marriage.

By 1834, Ada was a regular at Court and started attending various events. She danced often and was considered to be terribly charming.

On 8 July 1835 she married William King, 8th Baron King, later 1st Earl of Lovelace in 1838. Her full title for most of her married life was “The Right Honourable the Countess of Lovelace”.

Ada Lovelace met and corresponded with Charles Babbage on many occasions, including socially and in relation to Babbage’s Difference Engine and Analytical Engine. Babbage was impressed by Lovelace’s intellect and writing skills. He called her “The Enchantress of Numbers”.

During a nine month period in 1842-43, Lovelace translated Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea’s memoir on Babbage’s newest proposed machine, the Analytical Engine. Within the article, she appended a set of notes. The notes are longer than the memoir itself and include, in complete detail, a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers with the Engine, which would have run correctly had the Analytical Engine ever been built.

Based on this work, Lovelace is now widely credited with being the first computer programmer and her method is recognised as the world’s first computer program.

Lovelace died at the age of thirty-six, on 27 November 1852, from uterine cancer and bloodletting by her physicians. She was survived by her three children. She was buried next to the father she never knew (Byron the bounder) at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottingham.

In 1953, over one hundred years after her death, Lovelace’s notes on Babbage’s Analytical Engine were republished. The engine has now been recognised as an early model for a computer and Lovelace’s notes as a description of a computer and software.

The computer language Ada, created by the U.S. Defense Department, was named after Lovelace. In addition, Lovelace’s image can be seen on the Microsoft product authenticity hologram stickers. Since 1998, the British Computer Society has awarded a medal in her name and in 2008 initiated an annual competition for women students of computer science.

We can all follow in Ada Lovelace’s footsteps by aiming to remain curious and explore our disciplines and passions, whatever they may be. One way to do it is to learn to code.