The Mother of Computer Science (Ada Lovelace)
There have been many female scientists throughout history but for one reason or another many of them are not well known despite their incredible contributions to their area of study. Due to the male dominated society of many countries in past centaury’s these women fought hard to not only receive more than a primary education but to have their contributions recognised. Sadly, some of them died before their efforts became known. While the most important information about each scientist is the work that they have done it would be silly to ignore the struggles they faced in not only their early life but also how they overcame the obstacles in the way to reach their goals. After all, when confronted with a wall then it doesn’t mean that’s the end you can go over it, under it, around it or why not just break it and climb through.
In honour of the computer you are reading this on I have started with Ada Lovelace who could be called the mother of computer science or computer programming but she referred to her approach as Poetical science, perhaps in honour of her father. There are also records that show she referred to herself as an Analyst and Metaphysician; a phrase that means beyond physics and is a branch of philosophy.
Ada Lovelace was also known as The Honourable Augusta Ada Byron since that was her name. She did not have the title Countess of Lovelace until she married William King when she was 19. When Ada was only a few weeks old her father, the famous poet Lord Byron, left England and died abroad at some time after Adas eighth birthday. She barely knew her father but remained interested in his life and was buried next to him at her request. While being brought up in a single parent household could be though as a hardship it could also be argued that this was in her favour as there was no male to override her mother’s wish to teach Ada mathematics and science. These were subjects which were thought to be unfit for an aristocratic young lady and were usually only taught too well to do men who were expected to peruse such intellectual careers. However, at the time any reviews and biographers of Ada's life were unsympathetic. Due to the unfriendly split of her parents and the public perception of Lord Byron, controlled by Lord Bryon, was that of a misunderstood genius father, as was common in the time he controlled the public narrative, even after his death the view was unchanged and coloured the perception of Adas work and achievements.
From a young age, Ada displayed a brilliant grasp of mathematics and science and her mother nurtured this by providing tutors to develop her skills. One of these tutors was another famous female scientist, Mary Somerville, the first women to be admitted into the Royal Astronomical Society. Two other tutors were William Frend, a prominent social reformer and their family doctor William King. Please note that this is not the same William King that she married! Aged 12 she designed a flying machine by studying the anatomy of birds and a steam powered engine, this predated the patented aerial steam carriage of Henson and Stringfellow by 15 years.
After her father, the second and arguably most important man in Ada’s life was Charles Babbage. He not only introduced her to Professor Augustus de Morgan who went on to teach her advanced mathematics at the University of London but he also provided the means, through his invention the analytical engine, for Ada's fame. Due to the lack of attention paid to Adas writing and theories when she was alive, there are few accounts uncoloured by public perception of the intellect she expressed. We can, however, gain an insight into her intelligence from Babbage himself who said of Ada “that Enchantress who has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects could have exerted over it,”. High praise indeed for an era where women were expected to be quiet and aspire to nothing more than looking beautiful, marry well and provide heirs for the family. Augustus de Morgan was recorded as saying that had Ada been a man she would have been expected to go onto becoming “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence".
One of the most famous pieces of work Ada produced was while working to translate the work of Luigi Menabrea, an Italian military engineer who had written an article on the aforementioned analytical engine designed by Charles Babbage. What followed this was her anointments which were plainly entitled ‘Notes’. Inside the notes is the first ever computer programme, simply put they are the instructions for an algorithm to be carried out by a machine. Due to the mindset, Ada displayed which was mentioned before as poetical science; she examined how technology could relate to not only individuals but also society in a collaborative sense. This mindset helped to form the vision of a computer which could go past just being used as a glorified calculator which was as unique as Ada herself.
Now, something entitled notes are not expected to be very exciting. If there anything like my notes they would be barely legible, but these lengthed the article by 3. Along with the translation, it now contained new sections along with theories about how the machine could be used to create music and manipulate symbols in conjunction with the numbers it could already handle. The latter is considered to be the first computer programme. The translated article was published in 1843 by ‘Taylors Scientific Memoirs’ under her initials A.A.L and entitled “Sketch of the analytical engine, with notes from the translator. Alan Turing named it as one of the documents which inspired his work on the first modern computer in the 1940s’.
The right honourable Augustus Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace died aged 36 from uterine cancer she was nursed by her mother right until the end.
There is now an Ada Lovelace Day, which is an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths held on the second Tuesday of October. To find out more about the day or get involved visit findingada.com
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