Biography: Ada Lovelace

celebrates the life of her namesake, Ada Lovelace: the world’s first ever programmer

Ada Lovelace Day is celebrated on the 15th of October every year.

Narcissistic as it may be, I’m really excited about this day since it’s rare for someone else to share the obscure, palindromic name of ‘Ada’.

Ada Lovelace 20 years after her death, A.A.L. became publicly recognised by her real name, Augusta Ada Lovelace. Photo credit: Chris Monk

Ada Lovelace is often lauded as the world’s first programmer. Her unusual prominence as a female figure in the traditionally male-dominated realm of Mathematics can be attributed to her unconventional upbringing.

Born in 1815, she was the only child of Romantic poet Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Byron, who separated a mere month after she was born. Lady Byron, not wanting Ada to resemble her poetic father, ensured that she received an education in Mathematics and Music, antidotes to undesirable poetic tendencies. This was unusual for females of their time.

At the age of seventeen, Ada met Charles Babbage, Lucasian professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. Babbage had drawn up plans for a calculating machine known as the ‘Analytical Engine’. Louis Menebrea, an Italian mathematician, published a memoir about it in 1842, and Babbage recruited Ada’s help in translating it. For 9 months, she doggedly did so, adding her own notes it – these are the origins of her undying legacy. In a most prophetic fashion, she envisioned that the Engine “might act upon other things besides number… the Engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree or complexity or extent”.

Some might dispute her contributions to the development of any actual programs. Others might deny her even the title of a programmer. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see how true her words ring today.

In an age where every new era ushers in advances in science and technology, we have seen great feats achieved in computer science. At the forefront of this wave of innovation are computers that are the epitome of Ada’s ‘Engine’. They can now compose original music (The Iamus produced pieces that have been performed by the London Symphony Orchestra), predict the future (Nautilus successfully predicted the 2010-11 Arab Spring), and even simulate brains (Dawn, a supercomputer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, can simulate the brain power of a cat — but 100 to 1,000 times slower than a real cat brain).

From automated driverless cars to 3D printers and nanodrones, computers can certainly, as Ada said, “act upon other things besides numbers”!

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