Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a global celebration designed to shine a giant, deserving spotlight on the achievements of inspiring women in science, technology, engineering and math… past and present! Held every year since 2009 on the second Tuesday of October, the aim of this day is to create new role models for girls and women in these male-dominated fields by raising the profile of other women in STEM. It doesn’t get much WYSKier than this.
The woman who devised this brilliant idea that quickly became a global day of recognition is Suw Charman-Anderson, a social technologist, journalist and writer. It was her response to “online discussions about the lack of women on stage at tech conferences.” As a woman in tech herself, Suw realized that “the issue wasn’t a lack of women, but their invisibility.” Ada Lovelace Day remains her effort to change that, and she named it in honor of the woman who is recognized as the first computer programmer.
“Brought up in an era when women were routinely denied education, she saw further into the future than any of her male counterparts, and her work influenced the thinking of one of World War II’s greatest minds.” – Suw Charman-Anderson
As Suw wrote in her comprehensive biography of Ada Lovelace for the women in STEM anthology, A Passion For Science: Tales of Discovery and Invention, “The idea that the 1840s saw the birth of computer science as we know it today may seem like a preposterous one, but long before the Bombe, the Colossus or the Harvard Mark I, long before any computer was actually built, came a remarkable woman whose understanding of computing remained unparalleled and unappreciated for 100 years. Brought up in an era when women were routinely denied education, she saw further into the future than any of her male counterparts, and her work influenced the thinking of one of World War II’s greatest minds.”
Ada Lovelace, born Ada Gordon in 1815, was the only child to come from the “brief and tempestuous marriage of the erratic poet George Gordon (a.k.a. Lord Byron), and his mathematics-loving wife Annabella Milbanke.” Fearing that Ada would inherit her father’s “volatile ‘poetic’ temperament,” Ada’s mother raised her with a strict curriculum of science, logic and math that encouraged her childhood fascination with machines. The curious girl spent her time designing boats and steam flying machines, “and poring over the diagrams of the new inventions of the Industrial Revolution that filled the scientific magazines of the time.”
At age 19, Ada married an aristocrat, William King, and when he was made Earl of Lovelace in 1838, she became Lady Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. And that’s how the name Ada Lovelace came into play.
“…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.” – Charles Babbage, describing Ada Lovelace
As the short version of her extraordinary story goes (we’ve got the rich, in-depth version in our weekly Women In Science column), a close friend of Ada’s, mathematician Charles Babbage, came up with “plans for a tremendously complicated device he called the Analytical Engine, which was to combine the array of adding gears of his earlier Difference Engine with an elaborate punchcard operating system.” His design had all the essential elements of a modern computer, and Ada, completely intrigued by it, studied the operating system he was developing.
Though Babbage’s machine was never built, in 1842 Ada translated an article written about it by the Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea, for publication in England. Based on Ada’s intimate knowledge of the Analytical Engine, Charles asked her to contribute and expand on the article as she saw fit. In the end, her final article was over three times the length of the original and contained what has been described by many as the first computer programs, “as well as strikingly prescient observations on the potential uses of the machine, including the manipulation of symbols and creation of music.”
While Babbage and his assistants had sketched out programs for his engine before, Lovelace’s are said to be “the most elaborate and complete, and the first to be published,” which is why she has rightfully been given the title of “the first computer programmer.”
Sadly, Ada Lovelace died at the age of 36 on November 27, 1852 from uterine cancer, just a few short years after the publication of her now famed “Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator.” And almost 100 years later, it was this very article, chock full of her invaluable notes, that inspired Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computers in the 1940s.
Fact… Ada Lovelace was a total badass or as those who keep her namesake day thriving year after year around the globe so perfectly put it, “Her thwarted potential, and her passion and vision for technology, have made her a powerful symbol for modern women in technology.”
Did you know?
In May 1979, the “official” programming language developed for safety-critical system developers and military suppliers of the U.S. Department of Defense was named “Ada”, in honor of Ada Lovelace. It was intended to supersede the hundreds of programming languages that were previously used by the DoD. The military reference number for the language is “Military Standard 1815,” which is the year of her birth.
lead image credit to Sydney Padua, Suw Charman-Anderson Ada Lovelace Day