Equality, Diversity & Inclusion

Ada Lovelace: The First Computer Programmer

Blue plaque on a wall. The plaque reads: English Heritage. Ada Countess of Lovelace. 1815-182. Pioneer of Computing lived here.
Alice Nott

Ada Lovelace was a mathematician in a time when women could not even attend university. Despite her lack of formal qualifications, her work would go on to create the foundation for the technology that our modern world is based upon.

Ada Lovelace was born in 1815 as the only legitimate child of the romantic poet Lord Byron. Her mother quickly moved the baby Ada away from her father and London in the hope her daughter would not follow her father’s hedonistic and irresponsible lifestyle. Despite this, Ada’s imagination, although not the same as her father’s, would lead to her to the same greatness.

It often feels like an uphill struggle for women today to break into the world of innovation and technology. Suw Charman-Anderson is quoted in the New York Times as saying, “I started to think that one of the biggest parts of the problem was that women in tech are often invisible”. The modern world is where women can go to university, publish in their own name and are offered a range of schemes designed to get more women into innovative careers. Ada Lovelace could only dream of such things.

Watercolour of Ada Lovelace. Ada is looking to the front, in evening dress with mantilla, holding fan

Watercolour of Ada Lovelace possibly by A E Chalon in c. 1840

Ada grew up in a time when women were not just invisible in technology but all parts of life. She had no vote, upon marriage all her property became her husband’s, and she certainly was not going to be admitted to a university, still reserved for only the upper-class men. However, that did not mean Ada did not receive an education.

It certainly gave Ada knowledge that was beyond not just many girls, but many men of her time

Ada’s mother, Baroness Byron, ensured her daughter was not just taught the ‘womanly arts’ but also science and maths. Whilst this less than standard practice was not done in any desire to see her daughter become a scholar (many believe it was to stop Ada following the fantasies of her father), it certainly gave Ada knowledge that was beyond not just many girls, but many men of her time.

We of course must note that Ada was fortunate in her birth, born to a well-known aristocratic family, who could afford such a good education. Still, Ada managed to pursue her interests in a time when even the most aristocratic women would have to give up such things for marriage and motherhood.

Ada would come to be known as the world’s first computer programmer. After being introduced to the world of engineering by Charles Babbage in 1833, Ada looked to what others had written in the field. Babbage directed Ada to Italian Engineer Luigi Menabrea’s work ‘Analytical Engineering’. Ada translated this work from French into English, adding her own notes on the work along the way.

The most significant of these notes was the world’s first Stepwise Sequence or Regression. This is a logical way of solving an equation through adding and removing variables sequentially and seeing how they change the final result. Famously, Ada applied this reasoning to applications of Babbage’s analytical engine, though it was never built.

Her work was re-published and her true brilliance shone through

The application that Ada developed furthest and most elegantly was to calculate Bernoulli numbers, which are a sequence of rational numbers that have relevance in many areas of mathematics. The way she laid out this calculation is comparable to today’s computer programs and is often seen as the first of such. Ada gained some recognition in her time, but it was only after her death that her work was re-published and her true brilliance shone through.

Since 2009, the 15th October has been celebrated as Ada Lovelace day. A woman who predicted the rise of modern technology and computing may not have predicted how widely she would come to be celebrated. Ada Lovelace’s life is a brilliant but short one as she died at the age of 36 from cancer and is buried next to the father she never really knew in the Church of St Mary Magdalen in Hackney London.

Alice Nott

Featured image by duncan c via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

In article image by Alfred Edward Cohen (c. 1840) from the Science Museum Group via Wikimedia. Image in the public domain. No changes were made to this image.

For more content including uni news, reviews, entertainment, lifestyle, features and so much more, follow us on Twitter and Instagram, and like our Facebook page for more articles and information on how to get involved.

If you just can’t get enough of Lifestyle, like our Facebook as a reader or contributor.

Equality, Diversity & InclusionLifestyleScienceTechnology

Leave a Reply