International Women’s Day will be celebrated on Tuesday 8th March this year, 111 years after the first event was honoured. The first computer programmer, despite being a woman and pioneering mathematician in what to this day remains a male dominated field, was not present for this inaugural celebration, nor for any subsequent events. Her excuse, simple: she was born almost 100 years before the first IWD.
Ada Lovelace was born in 1815 in London. Her mother, Lady Byron, was a gifted mathematician, and her father was the Romantic poet Lord Bryon. It was an unconventional match that produced many problems for the couple, and just a month after the birth of Ada, Lord Byron left England for good, never seeing his daughter again. Unusually for the time, Lady Byron was highly educated and determined that Ada should be afforded this same privilege - mathematics and science included - despite being a girl.
Lovelace was tutored by Mary Somerville, an extraordinary Scottish scientist, and the two formed a close friendship. When Ada was 17, it was clear her mathematical abilities and interest in the subject was extremely advanced, so Somerville introduced her to some of the leading scientists of the day. Pioneers in electricity Andrew Crosse and Michael Faraday, inventor of the stereoscope and key contributor to electrical resistance Charles Wheatsone, and, crucially, polymath Charles Babbage, whose studies across mathematics and mechanical engineering drove his interest in computation, a passion shared by Lovelace.
At 18 Lovelace became fascinated by Babbage's work on his difference machine, a mechanical and automatic calculator designed to tabulate polynomial functions. The two worked together closely as Babbage designed his second machine, the analytical engine. When he presented his work in Italy at the start of the 1840s, Ada was tasked with the translation of the Italian transcript of the lecture into English. Alongside this paper she attached her own notes. They were so extensive and gave such clear explanation to a subject that was difficult to understand at the time that her own work was published separately in Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs under her initials AAL.
In the seventh and final part of these notes, Lovelace described an algorithm for the analytical engine to compute Bernoulli numbers, the first published algorithm ever specifically designed for implementation on a computer. Despite her algorithm never being tested, Ada’s notes demonstrated a never previously considered application for computing. Put perfectly by historian Doron Swade*:
“Ada saw something that Babbage in some sense failed to see. In Babbage's world his engines were bound by number...What Lovelace saw...was that number could represent entities other than quantity. So once you had a machine for manipulating numbers, if those numbers represented other things, letters, musical notes, then the machine could manipulate symbols of which number was one instance, according to rules. It is this fundamental transition from a machine which is a number cruncher to a machine for manipulating symbols according to rules that is the fundamental transition from calculation to computation—to general-purpose computation—and looking back from the present high ground of modern computing, if we are looking and sifting history for that transition, then that transition was made explicitly by Ada in that 1843 paper”
The contributions of Ada Lovelace are an inspiration for all female mathematicians this IWD, as well as a reminder of the value that diversity and different perspectives brings.
If you’re inspired by Lovelace's story, then checkout our Women in Science range, celebrating some other groundbreaking female mathematicians.
*Lovelace & babbage and the creation of the 1843 'notes' - Annals of the History of Computing