If you head over to Google today, you’ll see a image paying tribute to Ada Lovelace, whose work with Charles Babbage in the 1840s made her an early legend of computing history. The drawing depicts Lovelace writing equations with a quill, along with early versions of what would evolve to become the modern computer. Google’s official blog notes that it hopes that “today’s doodle inspires people to find out more about Ada, and about the contributions made by women in general to science and technology.” So just who was Ada Lovelace, and what made her remarkable?
According to her timeline, Ada Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron, the Countess of Lovelace. As the daughter and only legitimate child of Lord Byron, a famed Romantic poet, Lovelace had an unusual upbringing. Her mother delegated most childrearing duties to Lovelace’s grandmother, yet insisted that Lovelace be educated in science, logic, and mathematics, in part because she was afraid that Lovelace would otherwise inherit Lord Byron’s poetic madness.
Lovelace flourished in her pursuit of mathematics, and one of her mentors introduced her to Charles Babbage. Babbage, another English mathematician, was trying to design what he called an “Analytical Engine,” or a kind of early mechanical computer. Babbage was struck by Lovelace’s skill, dubbing her “The Enchantress of Numbers.”
With Babbage’s encouragement, Lovelace translated and expanded an Italian article about the Analytical Engine. Her additions included a method for using the engine to calculate Bernoulli numbers, which many consider the first computer algorithm, making Lovelace not only the first female programmer but also the first computer programmer of any kind. Even more astonishingly, Lovelace’s creative, abstract approach helped her imagine a future in which the Analytical Engine could manipulate other types of symbols in addition to numbers – creating digital music, calculating betting odds, or producing graphic designs.
Like many visionaries, Lovelace died before her time; uterine cancer claimed her at only 36. However, she also fell victim to the obscurity that often claims early female intellectuals. Ada Lovelace Day, celebrated on October 16, helps draw attention to Lovelace and other remarkable women in STEM fields. Head over to Finding Ada to learn more about Lovelace’s impressive life.