The Mother of Algorithms: Ada Lovelace

In our celebration of women in history who have contributed to the advancement of technology, today I present Ada Lovelace.

Ada Lovelace was actually Ada, Countess of Lovelace, and she was born the only legitimate child of Lord Byron, the poet, and his wife, Lady Wentworth, in 1815. How did this noblewoman end up writing the world’s first (that we know of) computer algorithm?

Ada’s early life was dominated by her mother who wanted to beat out of Ada any evil poetic tendencies inherited from her father. (Perhaps Mrs. Byron was sore that the famous poet had left her shortly after Ada’s birth.) In any event, she accomplished this by having her daughter instructed in mathematics and music. Little Ada took to science and math like an emo teen takes to skinny jeans. At twelve, she drew up engineering plans for her own flying contraption, a la Leonardo da Vinci. However, her poetic fascination would not be quenched.

Writing to her mother:

You will not concede me philosophical poetry. Invert the order! Will you give me poetical philosophy, poetical science?

While still a teenager, she met and started working with Charles Babbage in 1833, a scientist, mathematician and mechanical engineer. Babbage is known for his design of the Analytical Difference Engine, which was the first known design for a programmable computer. Babbage’s purpose for designing the Engine was to speed up the calculation of mathematical and astronomical numerical tables and to eliminate human error in said calculations. He had brought a small model of part of the Engine to the party where they met to dazzle party goers, and Ada was entranced by it and asked him pointed questions. While Babbage merely saw his Difference Engine as a calculator to speed up doing sums, Lovelace saw more potential in the device. In fact, she wrote history’s first ever algorithm, which took advantage of the Engine’s features. She even speculated the Engine ‘might act upon other things besides number… the Engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.’

On July 23, 2018, a first edition copy of the rare book “Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage, Esq” sold at auction in the U.K. for £95,000 (~$125,000). Included in the manuscript is a translation by Ada Lovelace of a paper by Italian engineer Luigi Menabrea. In addition to the translation, Lovelace also wrote notes that ended up being longer than Menabrea’s original paper. In these notes lies Ada’s plan to calculate Bernoulli numbers. Bernoulli’s numbers, including the method to calculate them, were discovered by Swiss mathematician Jacob Bernoulli and published posthumously in 1712. The numbers feature as coefficients in several different important sums and sequences, such as the Taylor Series, the Euler-Maclaurin formula, and the sum of powers. Ada’s calculation involves using symbols (variables) rather than straight numbers to compute a single Bernoulli number as an example.

The actual paper by Menabrea was published in French. It did, in fact, include a short calculation with variables that could be considered a simple computer program. But Lovelace’s plan to calculate Bernoulli numbers, published in her English translation of Menabrea’s paper, actually goes much further than Menabrea’s calculation by including loop structures common in today’s computer programming. Thus, Lovelace may be considered the world’s first known computer programmer.

In a nod to Lady Lovelace’s influence on modern programming, the U.S. Department of Defense named their programming language, developed in the early 1980s, “Ada”.

Please join me in celebrating this ingenious lady on October 9, dubbed Ada Lovelace Day!

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