Ada Lovelace was born 200 years ago today.
Many people think of Ada as the “First Computer Programmer”. The traditional story goes that it was Ada who spotted the potential of the work being done by Charles Babbage building his early computers, and it was Ada who developed the first programs for them. This version is familiar, hopefully, to most who care anything about the history of computing and programming.
I have been teaching computing for many, many years, and most years I try to explain to the new students that the history of their subject is something that they should value and is something that should interest them. Could you study Physics without knowing about Newton or Einstein? Biology without Darwin? Maths without at least a passing knowledge of Euler or Pythagoras? Surely not. So how can you study computing without knowing something about Babbage, von Neumann, Turing, Eckert and Mauchly, Wilkes, and, of course, Lovelace?
Ada is the only woman on that list, of course, which in many ways probably makes preserving her memory all the more important.
A student at Leeds University, tasked with giving a presentation on Ada’s life and work, once started with the memorable observation that she was a “Reet Clever Lass”. Which is true. She was the daughter of well known poet Lord Byron and had what might be called an unconventional upbringing for an upper-class Victorian woman. She was educated, and in particular she was educated in science and mathematics.
Whether or not it is true that she wrote the “First Computer Program”, it appears to be true that the first thing that we might recognise as a computer program (an algorithm to work out a mathematical sequence) does appear in her hand-writing on some notes on a talk given by Babbage about his computing machines. That’s not a bad claim to fame.
Of course, women remain in the minority in computing but, in education at least, maybe it’s getting better. I am off in a while to work with some first year computing students at Leeds Beckett, and almost half are women. Friday’s class is three-quarters women.
Maybe there’s another Ada in there?
So today, let’s offer a toast in memory of Ada Lovelace who was, as we all know, the first Computer Programmer.
Footnote: Anyone needing to know more about Ada need go no further that Sydney Padua’s excellent graphic novel / history The Thrilling Advantures of Lovelace and Babbage (The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer).