There are few minds that have contributed as much to humanity as that of Ada Lovelace. The daughter of a poet and a mathematician, she channelled both influences to help shape the modern world.
Born in 1815 to separating parents her first interest was flying. She studied birds and sought out materials that would make for efficient wings. Although she was unwell for much of her teens, she managed to complete an illustrated guide called Flyology which laid out her findings.
Her parents Annabella Byron – who was a renowned mathematician – and George Byron – the great English poet – would both end up having influence on her intellectual journey. However, it was her mother who raised her and pushed her towards rational thinking over imaginative and “fanciful” interests such as flight.
Her educational contacts saw Ada cross paths with many great names of 19th-century thought. She exchanged ideas with Andrew Cross, who was an early pioneer in the use of electricity, Michael Faraday he contributed to the study of electromagnetism, legendary author Charles Dickens and numerous others.
It was with British mathematician Charles Babbage where she made history though. Babbage, known as “the father of computers”, was working on his Analytical Engine. This proposed mechanical general-purpose computer resembled very little of the computers we use today. It was not a single physical machine but a sequence of designs that were perpetually tinkered with.
Lovelace corresponded with Babbage during the Analytical Engine’s development. She ended up developing an algorithm for the machine that allowed it to make a complex (by 19th-century standards) mathematical calculation.
This was the first algorithm of its type and is the first known instance of computer programming even though until this point there was no such thing as a programming language. Clearly, her mother’s influence was paying off.
But Ada, the great mind she was, wanted to explore the subject from different angles.
She wrote and translated literature supporting the project, with her work on such an intricate subject often penned poetically. She laid out the differences between previous calculating machines and the Analytical Engine she had contributed so much to. Before then it had been impossible to program the machines to solve problems of varying complexity.
She saw the huge potential that this technology had, realising that in the future it could contribute to far more than number problems. She speculated of its use in music in particular.
Whilst Babbage was focussed on piecing together the computer, it was only thanks to Lovelace’s vision that people began to realise just how far computers could evolve. Historian of computing Doron Swade said of this realisation of new possibilities “that transition was made explicitly by Ada in her 1843 paper”.
To make all of this even more impressive, these huge contributions to the world has been achieved by the age of 36. Tragically she never got to see the development of her vision, as she died at that age of uterine cancer in 1852.
Her legacy is not just the products of her scientific interest, but also how she approached the subject. She described her approach as “poetical science” which allowed her to question not just “how?” but “why?”. Her intellectual contribution is both that of the intricacies of computer programming and the questioning of how people and society relate to technology as a collective apparatus.
Ada is widely credited as being the first computer programmer and October the 11th is now known as Ada Lovelace Day in celebration of the achievements that her and other women have made in STEM (science technology engineering and maths) industries.