Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Who was Ada Lovelace and why should I care?


I was recently contacted on Facebook by a group asking me to participate in a worldwide event to celebrate the achievements of women in technology. It was hard to tell that much from the email, except that it was named after a female historical figure, Ada Lovelace. The group designated March 24 as Ada Lovelace day, and encouraged one and all to blog, tweet and generally spread the news about women in technology on that date.

I'd heard the name Ada Lovelace, though the only thing I could dredge up about her was a vague memory that the programming language Ada was named after her. As I discovered, her story was a tale of intrigue worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster. In fact, someone did make a movie about her--or kind of: "Conceiving Ada," a sci fi thriller with a historical twist. But her real story has yet to be told on the silver screen.

Here's the synopsis, based on my online research. Augusta Ada Byron was born in 1815, the only "legitimate" daughter of the famed poet Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Milbank. She never knew her father, who separated from her mother and who died when she was nine years old. Ada was often ill as a child.

Her mother, in an attempt to keep her safe from what she perceived could be inherited madness from her poet father, had her tutored in math. As it turned out, her talents in mathematics were immense. She eventually developed what is now considered the first algorithm, for Charles Babbage's analytical engine. There's even some speculation that she came up with the idea of using punch cards to program his machine. For that reason, she is credited with being the first computer programmer. According to the Wikipedia entry on her life: "She also foresaw the capability of computers to go beyond mere calculating or number-crunching while others, including Babbage himself, focused only on these capabilities." She had a long and fruitful professional friendship with the mathemetician for the rest of her life.

Her social position meant that she had to make her way in English society. She was frequently seen at court as a young woman. It's amazing to imagine the young Ada spending her days poring over notebooks detailing Bernoulli sequences and sketches of the Babbage engine (which was never built in his lifetime). Then, somehow she tears herself away from these important musings in order to be stuffed into a massive hoop skirt, boned corset, and sheath by some maid or other, her hair primped, her face powdered in order to be "presented" at court and sized up by the eligible bachelors.

She married a man named Charles King, who later became the Earl of Lovelace. This earned her title of the Countess of Lovelace. They had three children. Meanwhile, she learned that her father's half-sister Augusta Leigh had also been his lover, and that her cousin Medora Leigh was the result of that union. Wikipedia says that she blamed Augusta, calling her "evil." From such a distance, how can we judge any of those involved? Still, one can only begin to guess at the heartbreak and family divisions that plagued those who were intertwined with Lord Byron. Ada died at 36 of uterine cancer, and, according to Wikipedia, the bloodletting she received from her physicians. She was buried next to the father she never knew.

3 comments:

Steve Masover said...

Nice summary, Sunshine. I had a bell ring vaguely at the name, probably read in some history of computing book I read 20 or 30 years ago. I love that the first programmer was a woman, and the daughter of a romantic poet. Everything suddenly begins to make sense...

Sunshine said...

Doesn't it though? :)

Dr William J McKibbin said...

Sounds like Ada Lovelace was quite a woman -- of substance...