Space & Innovation

Who Was Ada Lovelace, The World's First Computer Nerd?

This 19th-century female mathematician created the first computer program, but do you know who she is? Who is Ada Lovelace?

In the alternative history steampunk novel The Difference Engine, the character of Ada Lovelace is presented as a scientific savant; a visionary sci-fi heroine who very nearly invents the modern computer -- in the 19th century.

The interesting part is, it's all pretty much true.

In today's DNews report, Trace Dominguez recalls the remarkable life and times of Augusta Ada Byron, the Countess of Lovelace, a.k.a. Ada Lovelace. Daughter of famous Romantic era poet Lord Byron, Ada was born in 1815 and took an early interest in mathematics.

She eventually struck up a correspondence with Cambridge mathematics professor Charles Babbage, who was working on a calculating machine he called the Analytical Engine. When Italian engineer Luigi Federico Menabrea wrote a paper on Babbage's machine, Lovelace translated and annotated the analysis, eventually producing notes that were three times as long as the paper itself.

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In the process, Lovelace conceived of entirely new possibilities for the Analytical Engine. Specifically, she created a method by which the Engine could calculate Bernoulli numbers. Her technique is considered by some historians to be the very first computer program.

Unfortunately, 19th-century professional and gender politics would not allow for an untrained female researcher to receive credit. Her notes were published with the anonymous initials "A.A.L." and only a small circle of mathematicians knew the true identity of the author.

Lovelace's contributions to the field were not acknowledged until well into the 20th century, but she has since enjoyed a kind of gradual vindication. In 1979, a software language developed by the U.S. Department of Defense was named "Ada" in her honor.

Lovelace foresaw the ultimate potential of computing machines as units of hardware that, by way of task-specific software, could do virtually anything. Tragically, Lovelace died of cancer at the age of 36.

-- Glenn McDonald

Read More:

Stephen Wolfram Blog: Untangling the Tale of Ada Lovelace

New Yorker: Ada Lovelace: The First Tech Visionary

AgnesScott College: Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace