“When [women] have been written out of the history, [girls] don’t have great role models. But when you learn about the women who programmed ENIAC or Grace Hopper or Ada Lovelace … it happened to my daughter. She read about all these people when she was in high school, and she became a math and computer science geek.”
Ada Lovelace: Prophet of Computer Age
Although she earned little public recognition during her lifetime, Ada Lovelace is now considered a pioneer and prophet of the computer age. In the first entry to his book Innovators, Walter Isaacson wrote: “Like Steve Jobs, [Ada Lovelace] stands at the intersection of arts and technology.”
Lovelace’s immersion in both fields began with her parents: Romanticism’s playboy poet Lord Byron and his “Princess of the Parallelogram,” a prim and proper product of the Industrial Revolution named Annabella Milbanke. As hinted by Lord Bryon arriving several days late to his own wedding, their marriage would not last. Although divorce was heavily stigmatized in England’s Regency Era, Byron’s incest with his half sister was even more taboo. Lovelace, then just four months old, would never know her father.
Fearing that her daughter might inherit Lord Byron’s manic tendencies, Annabella imposed on Ada a strict diet of mathematics and science. Lovelace’s tutors believed that, had she been a man, there would have been “potential to become an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence.” Indeed, Ada’s processing power was reportedly so great she suffered from headaches that impaired her vision.
Although many men of the time feared “the very great tension of mind which [sophisticated mathematics] requires is beyond a woman’s physical power,” Lovelace viewed things differently, writing: “Nothing but a very close and intense application to subjects of a scientific nature now seems at all to keep my imagination from running wild, or to stop the voice which seems to be left in my mind.”
At 19, marriage led to three children in four years. At 26, encouraged by her husband, Lovelace returned to assisting her friend and mentor Charles Babbage, known as the father of the computer, on a project called “The Analytical Engine.” During this time, she was asked to translate Italian engineer Luigi Meneabrea’s lecture notes from French to English. She found many errors and expanded on the original in her footnotes.
“The Analytical Engine has no pretentions whatever to originate anything,” she wrote in one of those footnotes. “It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths. Its province is to assist us in making available what we are already acquainted with.”
Thanks to those notes on the engine, Lovelace is now widely recognized as the first computer programmer.
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