Who was Ada Lovelace?
Here is some annotated background on this Pioneering Female Mathematician:
Born Ada Gordon in 1815 to Annabella Milbanke and the poet George Gordon (Lord Byron), from childhood she had a fascination with machines. Ada spent hours designing fanciful boats and steam flying machines, and poring over diagrams of the new inventions of the Industrial Revolution that filled the scientific magazines of the time.
image credit: Smithsonian.com
In 1833 Lovelace’s mentor, scientist and polymath Mary Sommerville, introduced her to Charles Babbage, a Professor of Mathematics who was well known for his visionary and perpetually unfinished plans for gigantic clockwork calculating machines. Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace both had somewhat unconventional personalities and became close and lifelong 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 an another occasion, as “The Enchantress of Numbers.” Lovelace was deeply intrigued by Babbage’s plans for a tremendously complicated device he called the Analytical Engine, which was to combine the array of adding gears of his earlier Difference Engine with an elaborate punchcard operating system. It was never built, but the design had all the essential elements of a modern computer.
In 1842 Lovelace translated a short article describing the Analytical Engine by the Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea. Babbage asked her to expand the article, “as she understood the machine so well.” The final article is over three times the length of the original and contains several early ‘computer programs,’ as well as strikingly prescient observations on the potential uses of the machine, including the manipulation of symbols and creation of music. Although Babbage and his assistants had sketched out programs for his engine before, Lovelace’s are the most elaborate and complete, and the first to be published, so she is often referred to as “the first computer programmer.” Lovelace herself never claimed authorship of the original ideas behind the engine. Babbage “spoke highly of her mathematical powers, and of her peculiar capability — higher he said than of any one he knew, to prepare the descriptions connected with his calculating machine.”
Ada Lovelace died of uterine cancer at 36, a few years after the publication of “Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator.” Her notes on The Analytical Engine became one of the critical documents to inspire Alan Turing’s early work on modern computers in the 1940s.
Those inspired by Ada Lovelace continue celebrating the contributions of women in math and science. For examples and more information, check out http://findingada.com/.