More times than I can count, women have been erased from the intricate details of human history. Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852), the visionary behind computer programming, is no exception. Her work had an unimaginable impact on society and technology. It would be an absolute shame to leave Lovelace’s story untold.
Augusta Ada Byron, later known as Ada Lovelace, was born in 1815 in London. Her parents were polar opposites, meaning childhood was overshadowed by deep tensions between her mother and father. On the one hand, we have Lord Byron, Ada’s pleasure-seeking father. The infamous poet was known for his moody temperament and multiple mistresses. To make matters worse, he had a daughter from a previous marriage whom he refused to acknowledge as his own. In a nutshell, Lord Byron was Ada’s deadbeat dad.
On the other hand, Ada’s hard-working mother, Anna Isabella Milbanke (Lady Byron), was a highly educated and religious woman. She committed her life to philosophy, mathematics, and God. When Ada was only a few weeks old, her father fled to Greece, leaving the family for good. From that point onwards, it was up to her mother to set Ada up for success. Lady Byron devised an intensive home-schooling program for Ada with the best tutors in the area. She believed that if her daughter mastered science and mathematics, she would never end up like her hedonistic father.
Meeting Charles Babbage
Ada was one of the most talented mathematicians of her time. By 17-years-old she’d met Charles Babbage (1791- 1871), a renowned academic and mathematician. He eventually became her mentor and helped her to enroll in an advanced mathematics program at the University of London. This was the start of a magical friendship that fostered Ada’s ever-growing passion for expanding her mind.
In 1843, Lovelace took on a ground-breaking project for her mentor. At the time, Ada had married William King, the Earl of Lovelace. He required his wife to accompany him during various aristocratic duties, but he still encouraged Ada to pursue her career with passion and vigor. This was an unprecedented level of support from any Victorian era husband – and we love to see it.
Babbage had written an academic article about the Analytical Engine. In his article, he theorized the possibility of the world’s first general-purpose computer. Unfortunately, the computer was never fully built due to a lack of funding. But under these circumstances, Ada was still responsible for translating Babbage’s article from French to English (yes, of course, we’re dealing with a bilingual queen). During the process of translation, she expanded on Babbage’s ideas, making them far more complex, creative and promising.
Although Lady Bryon did everything in her power to mold her daughter into a logical-thinking mathematician, Ada was still super creative. Out-of-the-box thinking was one of her most valuable traits – much like her father. It helped Ada to imagine the Analytical Engine processing letters and symbols through codes. In other terms, computer programming. That same year, 1843, Ada went on to write the first complex computer program in the history of technology.
The legacy of Ada Lovelace
Babbage never fully built the Analytical Engine. Nevertheless, it was the springboard for some trailblazing tech discoveries. With her mentor’s encouragement, Ada published her version of Babbage’s Analytical Engine theory. Recognition wasn’t her main concern, so she published the article using her initials, ‘AAL’. The frustrating part is that the scientific community left her ideas untouched for over 100 years. Ada died of uterine cancer in 1852 and for a long time her ideas died with her.
It was only in 1950 that Baron Bowden (1910 -1989), an English scientist, republished Lovelace’s work. This was the starting point of a tech revolution. In 1980, the U.S. Department of Defense named their newly developed computer language after Lovelace and called it “Ada”. As the code spread among more computer programmers and mathematicians, it became highly influential in the development of code for mobile phone networks, air traffic control, and satellites.
Lovelace’s legacy is so far-reaching that Zoe Philpott was inspired to create a one-women educational play about her in 2017. Philpott is an award-winning storyteller, tech guru and educator from London. Her theatrical production, Ada.Ada.Ada., shares Lovelace’s stories with new audiences in London every month. Philpott performs the entire show wearing a mechanical dress fitted with LED lights. The dress symbolizes Lovelace’s role in the history of computer programming and tech.
— ADA.ADA.ADA (@AdaTheShow) March 23, 2017
I hope that stories like Ada Lovelace’s get told more often as we progress into a future defined by powerful women. However, despite historical icons like her, women are still a minority in the world of tech. It’s for this reason and many more that I’m honored to share her story. I encourage young women from all walks of life to follow in her footsteps.
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