What came first, the chicken or the egg? The computer or the computer program?
If you happen to do anything other than sleep in a cave today, chances are you have Ada Lovelace to thank for it. She is responsible for the first ever computer program. And she came up with it long before the computer even existed.
Today is the fifth annual Ada Lovelace Day, celebrating the achievement of a Victorian mother-of-three who would change the world.
Let’s travel back through time for a moment. Before the ZX Spectrum and before the Atari 2600, there was a thing that historians like to call the 19th century. The computer may have existed as a concept in the 1800s, but it had yet to materialise into something tangible. One idea for a computer was the Analytical Engine, a proposal for a clockwork counting machine which was conceived by English mathematician Charles Babbage. In 1842, Babbage went to the University of Turin to deliver a lecture on the Analytical Engine and notes were taken by an Italian mathematician, Luigi Menabrea.
Lovelace was asked by Babbage’s friend, inventor Charles Wheatstone, to translate Menabrea’s notes from French to English. She did a little more than that, however, expanding on the original writings three-fold and, crucially, describing an algorithm for the Analytical Engine to compute an established sequence of numbers. This made her the first ever computer programmer.
Unfortunately, the Analytical Engine was never completed, so there was no way to test Lovelace’s theory. However, her place in computing history was assured.
Lovelace may have had her own Google Doodle last year, to mark her 197th birthday, but she isn’t exactly spoken of in the same breath as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
Ada Lovelace Day is about shining the spotlight on her achievement and inspiring more women into careers in the technology sector.
‘She was the first computer programmer and also really the first person to understand what a computer could do – and this was at a time when there weren’t any computers,’ said Suw Charman-Anderson, social technologist and founder of Ada Lovelace Day.
‘She wrote what is essentially a computer program. She wrote a description of how the machine could be programmed using punched cards to calculate Bernoulli numbers, a complex series of numbers.
‘She broke the process for calculating the numbers down into small formulae and then she described how you would code those formulae into punched cards, so it could be worked out by the machine.
‘She understood that the Analytical Engine could actually be used given the right algorithms to create music or to create art. That was a massive leap because, at the time, Babbage was mainly thinking about big tables of numbers.’
Babbage must have known, however, that the translation would be in safe hands. He and Lovelace had long been friends and he was impressed by her mathematical prowess – he nicknamed her ‘The Enchantress of Numbers’.
Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron and was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron. Both died aged 36. But her short life was packed with incident. Byron left Ada’s mother a month after she was born, an event which had a huge bearing on her future. Her mother, Anne Isabella, wanted to steer Ada clear of the literary path followed by her father, turning her towards mathematics.
‘Women weren’t supposed to have an education but she was actually educated by some of the best minds of the era,’ said Charman-Anderson. ‘Her mother was very keen that Ada be schooled in maths and science. It was medication through mathematics.’ see more
source: metro UK