The Story of the First Programmer

Ada Lovelace: the Victorian woman who traded in poems for coding

By Google Arts & Culture

Abacus (Republic of Korea/Japanese colonial rule) by unknownNational Folk Museum of Korea

Early days of computing can be traced back to the abacus five millennium ago, and of course to countless great minds along the way such as Greek mathematician Archimedes (287 BC) and his accuracy principles, Iraqi mathematician Al-Kindi (801 AD) and his contribution of cryptanalysis but let’s fast forward to the more “modern times” of the 18th century and meet Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer.

LIFE Photo Collection

Reinventing the paper airplane: a young girl’s imagination

While most aristocratic children were being reared in manners, adolescent Lovelace had the fortune of a mother who valued math over poetry. At the ripe age of 12, she illustrated plans for a flying vehicle with wings and a steam engine inside, a full 76 years before the Wright Brothers took their first flight.

Ada, Countess of Lovelace (1893) by Bentley, Richard & Son (publisher), Chalon, Alfred Edward (painted the original), and Brown, Joseph (engraver)Science Museum

The nurture of a single mother

During the height of children being forced factories instead of going to school in pre-industrial society, very few Londoner children had access to an education. Lady Ann Byron, married and separated from poet and nobleman Lord Byron, was a well-educated Victorian woman who had her daughter tutored by the likes of social reformer William Frend and Scottish astronomer Mary Somerville, a woman who would later become known as “the queen of 19th century science”.

Lady Byron was what you would call a “strict mother”, insisting her daughter study the disciplines in science, avoiding the romantic path her father was known to have taken. In short, Lady Byron didn’t want her daughter becoming a “mad poet”. And she succeeded.

Charles Babbage (1833) by R. RoffeThe National Museum of Computing

Charles Babbage: computer science 101

Ada later studied with Charles Babbage, an innovator in mathematics, inventing a machine that could go beyond simple calculations to perform much more complicated functions. Ada became mesmerized by a fancy device called a Difference Engine, created by Charles to take calculators to the next level.

Ada Lovelace (2021) by Manu CunhasMuseu Catavento

Ada’s big break

Charles deemed Ada’s work so impressive, he asked her to help him translate an article that had been written on the analytical engine. She began adding her own notes, tacking on so many that her notes soon became bigger than the original article itself. Some of her observations were the way codes could be used to help a machine go beyond numbers to handle letters as well. She also imagined a process where a device could repeat a series of instructions.

Both of these observations are essential in today’s computer programming processes, which gave Ada the reputation of becoming known as the first computer programmer. Her writings were published in an English science journal under initials, hiding her identity for many years.

Watercolour portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1840/1840) by UnknownBarbican Centre

So, they had laptops back in the 19th century?

No! But the idea was slowly conceptualizing, and Ada helped make this happen. For a computer to be able to do something, a programmer must first feed instructions into it, and it’s impossible to look at lines of code without seeing how Ada Lovelace might have inspired how future programmers eventually figured out how to make that happen. It would take a while for Ada to be recognized as the genius she was, since computer programming didn’t drift into mainstream for many years to come, remaining simply sophisticated calculators.

Ada died at 36, leaving an incomparable legacy completely unknown to her. She eventually was recognized for her work as a pioneer in the field of computer programming and to this day is an official ANSI and ISO Standard language named Ada.

12 St James's Square, Westminster, Greater London (2008-04-03) by Derek Kendall, English HeritageHistoric England

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