Biographies

Who was Ada Lovelace?

We take a look at the life of one of the world's first computer programmers

Each year, on the second Tuesday of October, the world celebrates the life and achievements of mathematician and computer pioneer Ada Lovelace, as well as the wider successes of women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

Ada Lovelace Day was first established in 2009 by former Open Rights Group executive director Suw Charman-Anderson, and today features a series of events across the globe that aim to promote the work of women in technical industries.

One such event is London's incredibly popular 'Ada Lovelace Day Live!' show, which will be hosted this year at the Institute of Engineering and Technology.

Considered to be the only legitimate child of famous British poet Lord Byron, Augusta Ada Byron was born on 10 December 1815 in London following the union between Byron and his wife Lady Wentworth (Anne Isabella Milbanke). Shortly after her birth, Lord Byron and his wife would separate, with Ada's father departing England for good when she was just a few months old.

Unusually for young girls during that time, Ada received a comprehensive education, under the tutelage of social reformer William Frend, and Mary Somerville, famous for being one of the first women to be accepted into the Royal Astronomical Society.

Ada demonstrated a predisposition for mathematics, language and the sciences from an early age, however, it wasn't until she was 17 that she met the person who would eventually become her mentor mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage. It was working alongside Babbage that the pair would develop the device known as the Analytical Engine, regarded as the first design of a general purpose computer.

Lovelace was asked to translate an article about Babbage's analytical engine, by Luigi Federico Manabrea. While doing this, she noted down lengthy comments and intuitions.

In her notes, she proposed a way in which this analytical engine could repeat a series of instructions, a basic version of the 'looping' process through which computer programs operate today. She also suggested that codes could help the device process letters and symbols as well as numbers. These notes would be published in an English science journal in 1943, but Ada never signed the publication with her name, using her initials instead.

Lovelace married William King on 8 July 1835, and became Countess of Lovelace after her husband became Earl, three years after their wedding.

Her last work was on trying to develop a formula that would ensure wins when gambling. She later died of uterine cancer on 27 November 1852.

Although the value of her publication was only recognised in the 1950s, Lovelace is now considered one of the important achievers in computer science. She recognised many of the main principles behind computers years before they even came into existence. Her notes inspired Alan Turing to work on the first modern computers in the 1940s.

Ada Lovelace Day is a chance to remember a brilliant woman and her intuitions and celebrate those of the many other scientists populating the international scientific world today.

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