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.No study of computer science is complete without a discussion of
While it’s stretching a bit far to say that she invented the Internet, it’s also true that the modern Internet (not to mention local area networks) would not exist as we know it without her work. STP prevents networks from creating bridging loops, which can eventually create a “broadcast storm” that can bring the entire network to a halt in seconds. While Radia will likely never be a household name with the general public, the legacy of her work is found in every device that uses the Ethernet protocol.
Members of the tech community who know their history recognize her contributions, however, with a number of them dubbing her “The Mother of the Internet.” She humbly rejects that title, telling The Atlantic in a 2014 interview that no one person should lay claim to having invented the Internet. Radia continues to work in the field, most recently as a fellow for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
She also continues to speak out about the need for greater diversity in the tech industry, and the stereotypes that women are still struggling to overcome to consistently gain stature and recognition equal to that of their male peers.
Is there a female tech pioneer or prominent woman in the modern industry you’d like to see featured?
Grace earned her PhD in Math from Yale University in 1934. When WWII started, she joined the U.S. Navy and was assigned to the programming team for the Mark I, one of the world’s earliest computers. This computer was used for many military calculations, most notably The Manhattan Project.
After the war Grace continued her work in computing. She invented the first compiler in 1952, but it took two years for people to actually believe that it worked. It’s hard to imagine computers today without compilers, and the structure of programming languages today is largely due to her efforts in this area.
Grace Hopper is also often credited with finding the first “computer bug,” an actual moth that got into the Mark II computer and caused an error. It’s not clear whether she coined the term or just found an actual bug that was causing a “bug,” but it’s an amusing anecdote to remember the leading lady of computers.
Today, she is memorialized in the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, a series of conferences where women from all over the world come to share ideas and learn from each other. Sponsored by Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology and the Association for Computing Machinery, it’s the largest gathering of women in technology, attracting over 12,000 attendees in 2015.
Many people call Ada Lovelace “the first programmer,” but “the first computer scientist” would be more accurate. Charles Babbage never completed his Analytical Engine, and it wasn’t possible to write actual code for it, but Lovelace demonstrated in detail how to turn an algorithm into a computer program. Even more important, she saw broad possibilities in “the science of operations,” recognizing it could be applied to any subject. It would be a century before technology could catch up to her ideas.
Edith Clarke also did her most important work before the computer era, but her work in electrical engineering prefigured computers. In 1919 she became the first woman to get a degree in electrical engineering from MIT. At General Electric she devised a graphical calculator that solved problems of current, voltage, and impedance in power lines. Before the electronic devices, “computers” meant people (usually women) whose work consisted of calculations, and she trained and directed a team at AT&T.
Frances “Betty” Holberton worked as a “computer” during World War II, performing ballistics calculations, and then became a member of the ENIAC programming team, the first people to program an electronic computer. Programming the ENIAC wasn’t a matter of writing code in a language, but more one of reverse-engineering the machine. She later participated in the development of the UNIVAC computer and the creation of the COBOL programming language.
When we talk about COBOL, we immediately think of Admiral Grace Hopper, whose great achievement might be summarized as relating computers to common sense. She headed the team that devised FLOW-MATIC, the first business-oriented programming language, at Remington Rand. She followed this up with COBOL, which for many years was the dominant computer language for business applications. Her work on these languages demonstrated that non-mathematicians could write computer code.
Susan Kare was an artist who joined the team developing the original Macintosh computer. Her contributions to its graphic user interface included proportional screen typefaces, as well as icons for operations like “cut,” “paste,” and “trash,” which GUIs have imitated ever since. Satisfying Steve Jobs was never easy, and the images that reached the Mac were just the top selections from many proposals that she created. Without the contributions of these women, computing wouldn’t be what it is today.