Offbeat

Ada Lovelace: World’s First Computer Programmer

You might be surprised to learn that the world’s first computer programmer was not only a woman but also the only legitimate daughter of English romantic poet, Lord Byron. Although she never knew her father who left England when she was a baby and died when she was only nine years old, Ada Lovelace (no relation to porn star, Linda) was an accomplished mathematician and a woman way ahead of her time.

Ada revealed an aptitude for mathematics and science at a very early age and one of her later tutors, the famous mathematician and logician, Augustus De Morgan, noted that her exceptional skill in this field might someday lead her to become “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence.” Her complex talents became apparent as early as 1828, when she produced the design for a flying machine.

She created the computer program in 1842 and it was simple in the sense that it was very similar to today’s version of “Turing Complete machines,” which refers to that class of machines that are limited to producing the result of any calculation. Charles Babbage, the man known as the “father of the computer” and a famous mathematician and inventor in his own right, was the first to develop this concept and he was one of Ada’s contemporaries. His machine was able to automatically use the results of previous calculations for future calculations.

But Babbage soon desired a more complex machine, one that he himself called the “Analytical Engine.” This special engine could be programmed using punch cards, and there is some written record that it was Ada Lovelace who suggested this improvement to him. A user could thus create a program with the punch cards once and be able to re-use it many times over, without having to manually repeat every part of the process.

His intent was to build a machine would be capable of doing a variety of mathematical calculations correctly every time, eliminating inherent errors that happen when humans do calculations by hand. Babbage’s computers were entirely mechanical as he lived in the days before electricity. Some of his designs ran on steam while others needed to be hand cranked to turn the thousands of gears and parts.

Babbage dubbed Ada Lovelace “the Enchantress of Numbers,” and they worked together often. Between 1842 and 1843, Ada translated an article by Italian mathematician, Luigi Menabrea, the topic of which was this engine. She then supplemented the article with notes of her own, which were more extensive than the article itself. The world’s first computer program was included in these notes and they detailed the use of the machine to calculate a sequence of numbers that would have run correctly had the Analytical Engine ever been built. (Babbage lacked the funding to finish the project.)

Ada Lovelace was also the very first to envision the Babbage design for purposes other than crunching numbers, such as listening to music and other non- mathematical pursuits. She died from uterine cancer at the age of 36 in 1852 some nine years after writing the program.

Did Apple’s iPhones and iPads rise from her phoenix?

Microsoft mogul, Bill Gates, isn’t talking; nor is Steve Jobs.

Who is to say, but here’s to you, Ada Lovelace, a brilliant woman far ahead of her time.

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