A Forgotten Legacy: Ada Lovelace

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There was a time when computers were just rectangular boxes sitting on desks. It is quite fascinating to see what the world has achieved in terms of computing since then. From robots working in factories to 3D-printing, from the Internet of Things (IoT) to the development of Google’s driverless cars, all inculcate in themselves a very basic data processing machine called the ‘computer’. And the person credited with imagining the wonders a computer can do is Ada Lovelace—a legendary mathematician people ignored for long only due to gender discrimination in the scientific field.

the person credited with imagining the wonders a computer can do is Ada Lovelace

Augusta Ada Byron was born in 1815 to Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Milbanke. Her mother, Anne, was a woman of strong intellect and encouraged her daughter strongly to pursue science and mathematics. She did not want her daughter to acquire the scandalous behavior of her father. Ada proved to be a genius at those subjects. She was home tutored by great scientists and researchers of that time, including Mary Somerville, a mathematician and scientist, and the first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society. Her ability to become a prodigy could have been easily guessed, when at the age of 12, she thought of designing a flying machine. She researched about different materials needed to make wings and studied the anatomy of birds.

 According to Ada,

I have got a scheme, to make a thing in the form of a horse with a steam engine in the inside so contrived as to move an immense pair of wings, fixed on the outside of the horse, in such a manner as to carry it up into the air while a person sits on its back.


Portrait of Ada Lovelace Courtesy (Source: Wikimedia)

 Later in 1833, she was introduced to Charles Babbage, an English mathematician and inventor, by Mary Somerville. At that time, humans did mathematical calculations themselves and were thus called human computers. But these calculations took a lot of time and were also prone to errors. So, Babbage built a “Difference Engine” which was a mechanical device for mathematical calculations. By 1834, Babbage introduced the second version of his engine called “The Analytical Engine”. The Analytical Engine was a general-purpose digital computer having four components: the mill, the store, the reader, and the printer. It was analogous to the parts in modern computer called the CPU, memory, input, and output devices. When Ada saw the Analytical Engine’s working, she became awe-inspired. She saw it not only as a machine for calculations but a box that would open to spread its magic in the world and initiate an era that we now live inthe digital age.

Lovelace saw the potential of analytical engine better than anyone else

On 8th of July, 1835, Ada married William King-Noel and they had three children together. He was made Earl of Lovelace in 1838 and so Ada became Countess of Lovelace. The couple had three children: Byron, Anne Isabella and Ralph Gordon. However, she did not let her marriage come in the way of her work. She continued to pursue her interests and study advanced mathematics by her tutor Augustus De Morgan.

as a tribute to her achievement, there is also a programming language named after Lovelace called “Ada”

The year 1843 saw Ada Lovelace translating the description of the Analytical Engine penned down by an Italian mathematician and engineer Luigi Menabrea. Her notes turned out to be three times longer than the original description. Lovelace saw the potential of that machine better than anyone else. In her notes, she wrote a complex algorithm to calculate Bernoulli numbers, earning her the title of “Enchantress of Numbers” by Charles Babbage. This algorithm set up a base for modern programming in computing. She even anticipated that this machine will also be able to create music and graphics if provided with the right algorithms. Her complete article was published in Scientific Memoirs journal in 1843. Babbage was never able to fully build the Analytical Engine due to insufficient funds.  The first modern computer was made possible after about a hundred years in the 1940s by Alan Turing.

As a tribute to her achievement, there is also a programming language named after Lovelace called “Ada”. In the 1970s, the US department of Defense developed a high-level programming language for their embedded computer systems. Ada is still used in traffic control systems, military, railway, and transportation industry all over the world.

To renew her legacy in our age, “Ada Lovelace Day” is celebrated every year on the second Tuesday of October. Its goal is to celebrate the achievements of women in STEM and highlight such role models to inspire more girls in pursuing STEM. In addition to this, The Ada Lovelace Award is given annually to women with outstanding accomplishments in scientific and technical fields.

Ada Lovelace’s path towards her scientific glory was rather arduous. As a woman, she had to face gender discrimination even though she was a Victorian high society lady.

Her tutor Augustus De Morgan wrote a letter to her mother in which he said:

The very great tension of mind which they require is beyond the strength of a woman’s physical power of application.

Basically, what he wanted to convey was that women were weak and incapable of accomplishing any scientific breakthroughs.

In our time and age when STEM education is considered of utmost importance, female innovators like Ada Lovelace should be remembered and promoted who helped laying groundbreaking foundation for modern computing and artificial intelligence.

 

References:

1)  https://philosophynow.org/issues/96/Ada_Lovelace_1815-1852

2)  http://celebratingada.com/

3)  http://www.awc-hq.org/ada-lovelace-awards.html

4)  https://www.doodlemaths.com/2017/03/10/mathematicians-that-changed-the-world-ada-lovelace-1815-1852/

5)  https://www.bbva.com/en/ada-lovelace-history-enchantress-numbers/

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