Women in History: Ada Byron Lovelace

March is known as National Women’s History Month.  This post is about a woman who made tremendous contributions in the world of scientific computing.  Way back in the 19th century; before computers were even thought of.

Ada Byron Lovelace, born Augusta Ada Byron, was a 19th century English writer, who is most known for her contribution to the analytical engine, an early mechanical general purpose computer designed by Charles Babbage, a mathematician and mechanical engineer, and a lifelong friend of Ada’s.  Lovelace is often called the world’s first computer programmer.

Born in 1815 Byron, was the daughter of a brief marriage between a poet Lord Byron and Anne Milbanke.   At an early age shoe took an interest in mathematics and later, an interest in Babbage’s work on the analytical engine. In 1842 Charles Babbage was invited to give a seminar at the University of Turin (Italy) about his analytical engine. Luigi Menabrea, a young Italian engineer, and future prime minister of Italy, wrote up Babbage’s lecture in French, and this transcript was subsequently published in 1842. Babbage asked Ada Lovelace to translate Menabrea’s paper into English, subsequently requesting that she augment the notes she had added to the translation. Ada spent most of a year doing this. These notes, which are more extensive than Menabrea’s paper, were then published in The Ladies Diary and Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs under the initials “A.A.L.”.

Her notes were labeled alphabetically from A to G. Note G is the longest of the seven. In note G, Ada describes an algorithm for the analytical engine to compute Bernoulli numbers (a sequence of numbers, in the form a/b). It is generally considered the first algorithm ever specifically tailored for implementation on a computer, and for this reason she is considered by many to be the first computer programmer.  Lovelace’s notes are important in the early history of computers. She also foresaw the capability of computers to go beyond mere calculating or number-crunching while others, including Babbage himself, focused only on these capabilities.

In 1953, over one hundred years after her death, Lovelace’s notes on Babbage’s Analytical Engine were republished. The engine has now been recognized as an early model for a computer and Lovelace’s notes as a description of a computer software.

All through her life Ada Byron suffered from poor health, despite being a strong-willed woman and being tremendously unique for being one of very few females at the time to not only show an interest in science and mathematics, but also to master the subject.  Lovelace died at the age of thirty-six, on 27 November 1852, from uterine cancer and bloodletting by her physicians.

The computer language Ada, created on behalf of the United States Department of Defense, was named after Lovelace. The reference manual for the language was approved on 10 December 1980, and the Department of Defense Military Standard for the language, “MIL-STD-1815”, was given the number of the year of her birth. The Ada computer language is used by the military as a standard of avionics software. Since 1998, the British Computer Society has awarded a medal in her name and in 2008 initiated an annual competition for women students of computer science.


~ by daroldingram on March 4, 2010.

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