The Big Idea: Ada Lovelace, The World’s First Computer Programmer

Ada_Lovelace_portrait.jpgIt seems only appropriate that as we celebrate Women’s History Month, we celebrate here on The Big Idea the genius of Ada Lovelace.

Ada Lovelace, full name Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace. (Now that is a mouthful.) She was the daughter from a brief marriage between romantic poet Lord Byron and Anne Isabelle Milbanke. Four months after Ada was born, Byron left England forever disgraced, thrown out as he was having an affair with his half-sister. He would never see Ada again and his regret is captured in his poem, “Child Herald.” There is a well-known verse that goes:

‘is thy face like they mother’s my fair child, Ada sole daughter of my house and my heart. When I last saw thy young blue eyes they smiled, and when we parted, not as we now part, but with a hope.’

You might think Ada Byron, with such a rough start, was destined for a rough ride; but Ada married William King, and then King inherited the title Earl of Lovelace. Ada, in turn, became the Countess of Lovelace, so over time she was called Ada Lovelace.

Lady Bryon did not want Ada to fall into the trap of poetry and watch her follow in the footsteps of her evil poet-father, so she tutored her Ada in mathematics. When Ada was seventeen, she met a man by the name of Charles Babbage, and the two of them began what would become a long correspondence about mathematics and other topics that lasted many years. Babbage, if the name sounds familiar served as the Lucasian professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, and was the inventor of the difference and the analytic engines, precursors to the modern day computer. This difference engine can best be described as a huge calculator, computing what are called polynomials using Newton’s Difference Method. After he had successfully built this difference engine, Babbage asked himself “Why don’t I get a machine that’s more general purpose instead of only calculating one polynomial? Why don’t I use cards that can actually be inserted in the machine and this engine will compute different polynomials depending on what I want it to do?”

AnalyticalMachine_Babbage_London.jpgThis invention—named the analytical engine—was ahead of its time as it was, in a sense, programmable. Babbage talked to Ada about it in great detail, and was passionate about this undertaking. His biggest obstacle, apart from funding, was one man: Charles Babbage. As most geniuses go, Babbage was a bit of a jerk and not well liked. The British government on reaching their patience limit with him yanked funding, but through their correspondence, Ada was enlisted to work with him and help in the analytical engine’s development. She translated Louis Menebrea’s paper on the potential of the analytic engine, including her own notes with the translation. In her addendum, Ada proposed using the analytic engine to compute Bernoulli numbers, requiring far more complicated sequences than simple polynomicals. In order to do that, she had to invent simple programming like loops. A loop is where, if you want to use the same block of code multiple times, you can loop through that same block of code until a condition is met or not met. Basic Programming 101 today, but in Ada’s time she had to invent it. Ada also invented branching where you evaluate a condition and if it comes up to one value, Code A is enacted. If the condition yields another value, Code B kicks in. All these things did not exist without Ada Lovelace, and these advancements along with her proposed methods for programming designate her as the world’s first computer programmer.

This is fascinating when you consider modern day computers can their roots back to the mid-1800’s with many of the physical demands and programming techniques anticipated by both Lovelace and Babbage before electricity was considered a mainstream innovation. The analytical engine, had it been built to the specifications of Babbage and Lovelace, was to be a massive mechanical machine, powered by steam.

So, Ada Lovelace, we salute you and your achievements in science, and for working with Charles Babbage on a Big Idea yielding an incredible legacy.  



shurtz.jpgA research physicist who has become an entrepreneur and educational leader, and an expert on competency-based education, critical thinking in the classroom, curriculum development, and education management, Dr. Richard Shurtz is the president and chief executive officer of Stratfdord University. He has published over 30 technical publications, holds 15 patents, and is host of the weekly radio show, Tech Talk. A noted expert on competency-based education, Dr. Shurtz has conducted numerous workshops and seminars for educators in Jamaica, Egypt, India, and China, and has established academic partnerships in China, India, Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, Malaysia, and Canada.