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Ada Lovelace, Creator of the World’s First Computer Programs

March 02, 2010
by Sarah Amandolare
Daughter of the renowned poet Lord Byron, Augusta Ada Byron—now known as Ada Lovelace—displayed a unique ability to apply her imagination to mathematics and computing. She is known as the creator of the world’s first computer programs, thanks in part to her lifelong friendship and collaboration with scientist Charles Babbage.

Early Days

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Augusta Ada Byron was born in London on Dec. 10, 1815, to Lord Byron and his wife, Lady Annabella Byron. The couple separated just five weeks after Ada’s birth, and Lady Annabella was given sole custody of the child.

According to Agnes Scott College’s Biographies of Women Mathematicians, Lady Byron feared that her daughter would become a poet like Lord Byron, and pushed her to excel in math and science. But Mary Somerville, a translator intent on humanizing technical subjects, became an important influence in Ada’s life and work.

In 1834, at a dinner party hosted by Somerville, Ada heard about Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, an idea for a calculating engine that “could not only foresee but could act on that foresight.” Ada was one of the few people at the time to appreciate the idea. 

The following year, Ada wed William King, who was 10 years older than she. King inherited the title of Earl of Lovelace in 1838, and Ada became Countess of Lovelace. According to the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC), the couple had three children.

Notable Accomplishments

Babbage’s first calculating machine, the Difference Engine, was not yet finished when he made new plans for an Analytical Engine. His “Parliamentary sponsors refused to support a second machine,” but Italian mathematician Louis Menebrea took interest, and in 1842, “published a memoir in French” about the Analytical Engine. Babbage asked Countess Lovelace to translate the text, and the resulting article and her accompanying notes “are the source of her enduring fame,” according to SDSC.

Lovelace’s notes “included the first published description of a stepwise sequence of operations for solving certain mathematical problems,” which led to her distinction as the first computer programmer, according to the Computer History Museum. Furthermore, the notes and article featured “visionary” statements by Lovelace, including her speculation that the Analytical Engine “might act upon other things besides number... the Engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.” 

The Rest of the Story

On Nov. 27, 1852, at age 37, Lovelace died from cancer. She was buried in London next to her father, according to SDSC.

In 2009, the first Ada Lovelace Day was held. The occasion, “an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science,” drew thousands of participants and was covered by major media outlets including the BBC. This year’s event will be held on March 24, 2010.

Writing for the Guardian, Naomi Alderman praises Ada Lovelace Day and its founder, Suw Charman-Anderson. She writes, “It's important for girls and young women to see that there are a lot of women making careers in technology,” and calls for more fictional characters that might serve as role models for girls interested in science and math. 

Through the end of 2010, the legacy of Babbage and Lovelace will be on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. According to NPR, Babbage never got the funding to complete his projects, but Doron Swade, “a former curator at the Science Museum in London,” teamed with engineers to build the Difference Engine using only “materials that would have been available to Babbage in the 1840s.” In 2011, the structure will move to a private collection in Seattle. 
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