Ada Lovelace: How the ‘Enchantress of Numbers’ Invented Computer Programming

No study of computer science is complete without a discussion of Charles Babbage and his early mechanical computers, the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine. What is rarely touched upon, however, are the contributions made by Ada Lovelace, whom Babbage fondly referred to as his ‘Enchantress of Numbers’. While Babbage’s conceptualized — but never successful built — mechanical computing devices laid the groundwork for modern computers, Lovelace was the first to propose what we now call computer programming. While Babbage is generally credited with giving birth to computer science, it is Lovelace who created the soul of the machine. Ada Lovelace, or to use her formal name, Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, was as unconventional as she was brilliant. Born on December 10, 1815 to famed poet Lord George Gordon Byron and Lady Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron, Lovelace showed an early aptitude for mathematics. This was encouraged by her mother, who was determined that Ada be nothing like her famously free-spirited, philandering father, who separated from her mother when Ada was only a few weeks old.  Ada never saw her father, who died in Greece when she was eight. Lovelace was given what was at the time considered a very unconventional upbringing for a lady of her social status. At a time when proper women were generally educated only in art, literature, and how to be the best dinner companion and wife, Lovelace was drilled in science and mathematics by a series of private tutors. Her mastery of mathematics opened doors in English society usually reserved for men. This led to the 17-year-old Ada winning an introduction to famed mathematician Babbage. The two quickly became inseparable, with Babbage assuming the role of mentor to his young protégé and took a role in helping him design his legendary computational machines. Lovelace earned her place in computer history when she was asked to translate an article on Babbage’s early analytical engine by Italian mathematician Luigi Federico Menabrea for a Swiss journal. Instead of simply translating Menabrea’s work, she added copious notes — more than three times as long as the original text — in which she laid the groundwork for computer programming. Lovelace described a method by which letters as well as numbers could be encoded and represented. She was the first to conceive the idea that a computer could be reprogrammed to perform an infinite number of varied tasks, limited only by the instructions it was given as well as a number of other ideas that have since become the bedrock on which computer programming is built. Sadly, Lovelace’s ground-breaking work, originally published in 1853 under the initials ‘A.L.’, received little attention when it was first published. It was largely forgotten until 1953, when author B.V. Bowden rediscovered her work and published it as Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines. Ada Lovelace’s contributions to computer science has seen been memorialized by a number of organizations, including the U.S. Navy, who named a programming language ADA in her honor in 1980. Her contributions are also recognized each year during Ada Lovelace Day. ALD, a celebration of women in science, technology, engineering and science, was first celebrated in 2009. This year’s ALD will be celebrated on October 11. Contact us for more information on the pioneering women of technology of yesterday and today.