A century before the dawn of the computer age, Ada Lovelace imagined the modern-day, general-purpose computer. It could be programmed to follow instructions, she wrote in 1843. It could not just calculate but also create, as it “weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.”
The computer she was writing about, the British inventor Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, was never built. But her writings about computing have earned Lovelace — who died of uterine cancer in 1852 at 36 — recognition as the first computer programmer.
The program she wrote for the Analytical Engine was to calculate the seventh Bernoulli number. (Bernoulli numbers, named after the Swiss mathematician Jacob Bernoulli, are used in many different areas of mathematics.) But her deeper influence was to see the potential of computing. The machines could go beyond calculating numbers, she said, to understand symbols and be used to create music or art.
“This insight would become the core concept of the digital age,” Walter Isaacson wrote in his book “The Innovators.” “Any piece of content, data or information — music, text, pictures, numbers, symbols, sounds, video — could be expressed in digital form and manipulated by machines.”
She also explored the ramifications of what a computer could do, writing about the responsibility placed on the person programming the machine, and raising and then dismissing the notion that computers could someday think and create on their own — what we now call artificial intelligence.
“The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate any thing,” she wrote. “It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform.”
Lovelace, a British socialite who was the daughter of Lord Byron, the Romantic poet, had a gift for combining art and science, one of her biographers, Betty Alexandra Toole, has written. She thought of math and logic as creative and imaginative, and called it “poetical science.”
Math “constitutes the language through which alone we can adequately express the great facts of the natural world,” Lovelace wrote.
Her work, which was rediscovered in the mid-20th century, inspired the Defense Department to name a programming language after her and each October Ada Lovelace Day signifies a celebration of women in technology.
Lovelace lived when women were not considered to be prominent scientific thinkers, and her skills were often described as masculine.
“With an understanding thoroughly masculine in solidity, grasp and firmness, Lady Lovelace had all the delicacies of the most refined female character,” said an obituary in The London Examiner.
Babbage, who called her the “enchantress of numbers,” once wrote that she “has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects (in our own country at least) could have exerted over it.”
Augusta Ada Byron was born on Dec. 10, 1815, in London, to Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke. Her parents separated when she was an infant, and her father died when she was 8. Her mother — whom Lord Byron called the “princess of parallelograms” and, after their falling out, a “mathematical Medea” — was a social reformer from a wealthy family who had a deep interest in mathematics.
Lovelace showed a passion for math and mechanics from a young age, encouraged by her mother. Because of her class, she had access to private tutors and to intellectuals in British scientific and literary society. She was insatiably curious and surrounded herself with big thinkers of the day, including Mary Somerville, a scientist and writer.
Continue onto the New York Times to read the complete article.