Ada Lovelace – Work on the precursor of computers

Women in Tech – The Role of Women in Technological Progress

Welcome to our first blog post where we talk about successful women in tech. Our first example immediately deviates a bit from this description, because the woman we’re going to talk about in this post lived long before the tech industry as we know it today existed. We’re talking about the English aristocrat Ada Lovelace.

Who was Ada Lovelace?

Ada Lovelace was born in London in 1815. She was the daughter of Baroness Anna Isabella Noel and her husband, the English poet Lord Byron. Her mother Anna was enthusiastic about mathematics from a young age and passed this enthusiasm on to her daughter. Ada, however, never met her father – her mother separated from the poet shortly after her birth.

The baroness attached great importance to her daughter’s education, even if her interest in science and her presence at relevant events did not conform to the conventions of the time. Not least for this reason, the young Ada mainly took lessons from various tutors and house teachers. However, she also took part in many meetings of evening societies where she met various scientists. This is also how Ada Lovelace met the mathematician Charles Babbage. Her work for and with him laid the foundation for her achievements that are so well known today.

Portrait von Ada Lovelace

Portrait of Ada Lovelace by William Henry Mote

What is she known for?

There is one thing that we would like to get out of the way first: opinions about Ada Lovelace vary widely. Some call her an absolute visionary who was far ahead of her time, while others question virtually all of her accomplishments. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. In any case, the Englishwoman is known for her comments on Charles Babbage’s work.

It was this same Charles Babbage who designed the “Analytical Engine” in 1833. This is a calculating machine that could have been considered an early precursor of our computers, had he ever been able to build it. In 1842, Ada Lovelace translated a paper on the machine into English and Babbage asked her to add her own notes to it. Depending on the source, her “Notes” ended up comprising double to triple the original treatise. In addition, she had appended suggestions for calculating Bernoulli numbers to the extended treatise. This proposal is today considered the first known computer program by some.

The famous remarks, however, are also part of the controversy surrounding them. By now it seems quite clear that most or all of the calculation of the Bernoulli numbers came from Babbage and were merely written down in the Notes.

Nevertheless, many of her remarks have become very well known. Ada Lovelace noted that she saw great potential in the machine and predicted areas of application that were still mere theory at the time. She spoke, for example, of the machine being able to calculate virtually anything that could be formalized and even write its own pieces of music:

The engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.

These remarks describe the potential of the engine as that of a computer. However, her objection that the Analytical Engine could not have cognition was later called “Lady Lovelace’s Objection” by Alan Turing and still preoccupies scientists around the world in the field of artificial intelligence.

Die Analytical Engine war mehr als nur eine Rechenmaschine

Model of the Analytical Engine at the Science Museum London, by Bruno Barral (ByB), CC BY-SA 2.5

Again, it cannot be conclusively determined whether all of these thoughts were her own. Nevertheless, even if none of the thoughts were her own, the notes do presuppose a fundamental understanding of the machine. Moreover, the fact that Babbage asked her for her notes shows his confidence in her ability.

She was not allowed to study and had to teach much of her mathematical skills to herself. Partly because of these limitations, her achievements are astonishing for the time. It took not only a fair amount of self-confidence to work against convention to this degree, but also a great deal of skill and perseverance.

For more information on the remarks, see, for example, the dedicated page of the Mathematical Association of America.

Implications for today

As you might have guessed, there is little immediate impact of Lady Lovelace’s work. The Analytical Engine was never built (at least it never fully worked). An inspiration nonetheless, Lovelace and Babbage’s work continues to lead to lively discussions today.

The extraordinary thing about their work, then, is not its immediate impact on the present day, but the fact that the potential of a “calculating machine” as a computer was recognized. However, the Analytical Engine in itself inspired some early computers. By the way: a computer that matched the performance Babbage predicted was not completed until 1960 by Konrad Zuse.

Ada, in turn, is the namesake of the Ada programming language. She also still inspires countless working groups today, from tech groups in schools to international organizations.

There are several foundations and projects that, inspired by Ms. Lovelace, are dedicated to the advancement of women and even have her in their names.

  • Ada Lovelace Project (German)

    German project to promote girls and women in STEM

  • Finding Ada

    International organization that is responsible for Ada Lovelace Day, a worldwide blogging event 

  • Ada Lovelace Awards

    International Awards for Women in Tech 

  • Ada Initiative

     The Ada Initiative has been inactive since 2015. However, you can still find valuable resources on the website.

All the best
Your sms77 team
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