Ada Lovelace

AdaLovelaceDayAugusta Ada King (1815 – 1852), commonly known as Ada Lovelace, was the daughter of Anne Byron and the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron. Her parents separated a month after she was born, and four months later Lord Byron left England forever, eventually dying abroad when Ada was eight years old. Anne, afraid that Ada had inherited her fathers wild nature and ‘insanity’, promoted her daughters interest in mathematics and logic as an antidote against these inclinations.

Ada Lovelace is best known for her collaborations with the fellow British mathematician Charles Babbage (sometimes called ‘father of the computer’), working with him on the proposal for an ‘Analytical Engine’, a mechanical general-purpose computer. They never managed to build something due to funding problems, but their notes are the first detailed description of such a device. The first actual general-purpose computers were build in the 1940’s.

Around 1842, Ada translated an Italian article on the subject, and added some notes to it. These notes contain the first known description of programming, and the first algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine. Because of this, Ada Lovelace is widely considered the worlds first computer programmer. Although the exact extend of her contributions have been questioned, correspondence from both her and Babbage at the time make it clear that although he provided some formula’s, Lovelace wrote the bulk of the program herself, and including it in the notes was her idea.

The most interesting thing about Lovelace in my opinion is that she was also the first to think in a broader sense about what computers would be able to do beyond mere number-crunching. Most other scientist at that time concentrated only on the calculation capabilities of the device. She called herself – perhaps inspired by the memory of her father – a ‘poetical scientist’, because she also asked conceptual questions about how people and society would react to the introduction of the computer. I like this ability to bridge concepts and think about a subject in a different light or from a different frame of mind.

I am also fascinated by the view that shaped her upbringing: mathematics and logic as a corrective for a suspected wild nature. The idea of rational v.s. emotional behavior as mutually exclusive is a view that is still common today. It is interesting to note that, although Lord Byron was highly controversial in his days, his different morality is now often romanticized. Contrarily, Lovelace’s contributions have been questioned based on the suspicion that she was manic-depressed and delusional. ‘Insanity’ is apparently beneficial when writing poems, but unfavorable when writing programs!

The translated article + notes by Lovelace, and a comic about Anne’s upbringing strategies (By Kate Beaton).

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