How Ada Lovelace, Daughter of Lord Byron, Wrote the First Computer Program in 1842–a Century Before the First Computer

I’ve nev­er quite under­stood why the phrase “revi­sion­ist his­to­ry” became pure­ly pejo­ra­tive. Of course, it has its Orwellian dark side, but all knowl­edge has to be revised peri­od­i­cal­ly, as we acquire new infor­ma­tion and, ide­al­ly, dis­card old prej­u­dices and nar­row frames of ref­er­ence. A fail­ure to do so seems fun­da­men­tal­ly regres­sive, not only in polit­i­cal terms, but also in terms of how we val­ue accu­rate, inter­est­ing, and engaged schol­ar­ship. Such research has recent­ly brought us fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ries about pre­vi­ous­ly mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple who made sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery, such as NASA’s “human com­put­ers,” por­trayed in the book Hid­den Fig­ures, then dra­ma­tized in the film of the same name.

Like­wise, the many women who worked at Bletch­ley Park dur­ing World War II—helping to deci­pher encryp­tions like the Nazi Enig­ma Code (out of near­ly 10,000 code­break­ers, about 75% were women)—have recent­ly been get­ting their his­tor­i­cal due, thanks to “revi­sion­ist” researchers. And, as we not­ed in a recent post, we might not know much, if any­thing, about film star Hedy Lamarr’s sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to wire­less, GPS, and Blue­tooth tech­nol­o­gy were it not for the work of his­to­ri­ans like Richard Rhodes. These few exam­ples, among many, show us a fuller, more accu­rate, and more inter­est­ing view of the his­to­ry of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy, and they inspire women and girls who want to enter the field, yet have grown up with few role mod­els to encour­age them.

We can add to the pan­theon of great women in sci­ence the name Ada Byron, Count­ess of Lovelace, the daugh­ter of Roman­tic poet Lord Byron. Lovelace has been renowned, as Hank Green tells us in the video at the top of the post, for writ­ing the first com­put­er pro­gram, “despite liv­ing a cen­tu­ry before the inven­tion of the mod­ern com­put­er.” This pic­ture of Lovelace has been a con­tro­ver­sial one. “His­to­ri­ans dis­agree,” writes prodi­gious math­e­mati­cian Stephen Wol­fram. “To some she is a great hero in the his­to­ry of com­put­ing; to oth­ers an over­es­ti­mat­ed minor fig­ure.”

Wol­fram spent some time with “many orig­i­nal doc­u­ments” to untan­gle the mys­tery. “I feel like I’ve final­ly got­ten to know Ada Lovelace,” he writes, “and got­ten a grasp on her sto­ry. In some ways it’s an ennobling and inspir­ing sto­ry; in some ways it’s frus­trat­ing and trag­ic.” Edu­cat­ed in math and music by her moth­er, Anne Isabelle Mil­banke, Lovelace became acquaint­ed with math­e­mat­ics pro­fes­sor Charles Bab­bage, the inven­tor of a cal­cu­lat­ing machine called the Dif­fer­ence Engine, “a 2‑foot-high hand-cranked con­trap­tion with 2000 brass parts.” Bab­bage encour­aged her to pur­sue her inter­ests in math­e­mat­ics, and she did so through­out her life.

Wide­ly acknowl­edged as one of the fore­fa­thers of com­put­ing, Bab­bage even­tu­al­ly cor­re­spond­ed with Lovelace on the cre­ation of anoth­er machine, the Ana­lyt­i­cal Engine, which “sup­port­ed a whole list of pos­si­ble kinds of oper­a­tions, that could in effect be done in arbi­trar­i­ly pro­grammed sequence.” When, in 1842, Ital­ian math­e­mati­cian Louis Mene­brea pub­lished a paper in French on the Ana­lyt­i­cal Engine, “Bab­bage enlist­ed Ada as trans­la­tor,” notes the San Diego Super­com­put­er Cen­ter’s Women in Sci­ence project. “Dur­ing a nine-month peri­od in 1842–43, she worked fever­ish­ly on the arti­cle and a set of Notes she append­ed to it. These are the source of her endur­ing fame.” (You can read her trans­la­tion and notes here.)

In the course of his research, Wol­fram pored over Bab­bage and Lovelace’s cor­re­spon­dence about the trans­la­tion, which reads “a lot like emails about a project might today, apart from being in Vic­to­ri­an Eng­lish.” Although she built on Bab­bage and Menebrea’s work, “She was clear­ly in charge” of suc­cess­ful­ly extrap­o­lat­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the Ana­lyt­i­cal Engine, but she felt “she was first and fore­most explain­ing Babbage’s work, so want­ed to check things with him.” Her addi­tions to the work were very well-received—Michael Fara­day called her “the ris­ing star of Science”—and when her notes were pub­lished, Bab­bage wrote, “you should have writ­ten an orig­i­nal paper.”

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, as a woman, “she couldn’t get access to the Roy­al Society’s library in Lon­don,” and her ambi­tions were derailed by a severe health cri­sis. Lovelace died of can­cer at the age of 37, and for some time, her work sank into semi-obscu­ri­ty. Though some his­to­ri­ans have  seen her as sim­ply an expos­i­tor of Babbage’s work, Wol­fram con­cludes that it was Ada who had the idea of “what the Ana­lyt­i­cal Engine should be capa­ble of.” Her notes sug­gest­ed pos­si­bil­i­ties Bab­bage had nev­er dreamed. As the Women in Sci­ence project puts it, “She right­ly saw [the Ana­lyt­i­cal Engine] as what we would call a gen­er­al-pur­pose com­put­er. It was suit­ed for ‘devel­op­ping [sic] and tab­u­lat­ing any func­tion what­ev­er… the engine [is] the mate­r­i­al expres­sion of any indef­i­nite func­tion of any degree of gen­er­al­i­ty and com­plex­i­ty.’ Her Notes antic­i­pate future devel­op­ments, includ­ing com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed music.”

In a recent episode of the BBC’s In Our Time, above, you can hear host Melvyn Bragg dis­cuss Lovelace’s impor­tance with his­to­ri­ans and schol­ars Patri­cia Fara, Doron Swade, and John Fue­gi. And be sure to read Wolfram’s bio­graph­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal account of Lovelace here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How 1940s Film Star Hedy Lamarr Helped Invent the Tech­nol­o­gy Behind Wi-Fi & Blue­tooth Dur­ing WWII

The Con­tri­bu­tions of Women Philoso­phers Recov­ered by the New Project Vox Web­site

Real Women Talk About Their Careers in Sci­ence

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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