Ada Lovelace's skills in language, music and tapestry contributed to her pioneering work in computing

Ada Lovelace’s skills in language, music and tapestry contributed to her pioneering work in computing

Ada Lovelace, known as the first computer programmer, was born on December 10, 1815, more than a century before the development of digital electronic computers.

Lovelace has been hailed as a role model for girls in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). A dozen young audience biographies were published for the 200th anniversary of her birth in 2015. And in 2018, The New York Times added hers as one of the first “missing obituaries” of women to the rise of the #MeToo movement. .

But Lovelace – properly Ada King, Countess of Lovelace after her marriage – drew on many different fields for her innovative work, including languages, music and sewing, in addition to mathematical logic. Recognizing that her comprehensive education allowed her to do work well ahead of her time, she can be a role model for all students, not just girls.

Lovelace was the daughter of outraged romantic poet George Gordon Byron, aka Lord Byron, and his highly educated and strictly religious wife Anne Isabella Noel Byron, known as Lady Byron. Lovelace’s parents separated shortly after her birth. At a time when women were not allowed to own property and had few legal rights, her mother won custody of her daughter.

Growing up in a privileged aristocratic family, Lovelace was educated by home tutors, as was common for girls like her. She received lessons in French and Italian, music, and appropriate crafts like embroidery. Less common for a girl in her day, she also studied math. Lovelace continued to work with math tutors in her adult life, and she eventually corresponded with University of London mathematician and logician Augustus De Morgan about symbolic logic.

vintage black and white photograph of a woman in an elaborate outfit
A rare photograph of Ada Lovelace.
Daguerreotype by Antoine Claudet via Wikimedia

Lovelace’s algorithm

Lovelace drew on all of these lessons when she wrote her computer program – in reality, it was a set of instructions for a mechanical calculator that had only been built in parts.

The computer in question was the analytical engine designed by mathematician, philosopher and inventor Charles Babbage. Lovelace had met Babbage when she was introduced to London society. The two bonded over their shared love of mathematics and their fascination with mechanical calculation. By the early 1840s, Babbage had won and lost government funding for a mathematical calculator, had argued with the skilled craftsman building the precision parts for his machine, and was on the verge of abandoning his project. At this point, Lovelace stepped in as a defender.

To introduce Babbage’s calculator to a British audience, Lovelace offered to translate an article describing the analytical engine into English. The article was written in French by Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea and published in a Swiss journal. Scholars believe Babbage encouraged her to add her own notes.

Ada Lovelace envisioned the possibilities of computing at the beginning of the 19th century.

In her notes, which ended up being twice as long as the original article, Lovelace drew on different areas of her upbringing. Lovelace began by describing how to code instructions on punched cards, like those used for the Jacquard loom, a device patented in 1804 that used punched cards to automate weaving patterns in fabric.

Having learned embroidery herself, Lovelace was familiar with the repeating patterns used for crafts. Similarly, repetitive steps were required for mathematical calculations. To avoid duplicating maps for repetitive steps, Lovelace used loops, nested loops, and conditional tests in his program instructions.

The notes included instructions on how to calculate Bernoulli numbers, which Lovelace knew from his training to be important in the study of mathematics. His program showed that the analytical engine was capable of performing original calculations that had not yet been performed manually. At the same time, Lovelace noted that the machine could only follow instructions and not “create anything”.

a yellowed sheet of paper with lines similar to those of a spreadsheet
Ada Lovelace created this table for the different steps of the program to calculate Bernoulli numbers.
Courtesy of Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering and TechnologyCC BY-ND

Finally, Lovelace recognized that the numbers manipulated by the analytical engine could be thought of as other types of symbols, such as musical notes. An accomplished singer and pianist, Lovelace was familiar with musical notation symbols representing aspects of musical performance such as pitch and duration, and she had manipulated logical symbols in her correspondence with De Morgan. It wasn’t a big leap for her to realize that the analytical engine could process symbols – not just calculate numbers – and even compose music.

A complete thinker

Inventing computer programming wasn’t the first time Lovelace brought his knowledge from different fields to a new subject. For example, as a young girl, she was fascinated by flying machines. Combining biology, mechanics and poetry, she asks her mother for anatomy books to study the function of the wings of birds. She built and experienced wings, and in her letters she metaphorically expressed her longing for her mother in the language of flight.

Despite his talents in logic and mathematics, Lovelace did not pursue a scientific career. She was independently wealthy and never made any money from her scientific pursuits. It was, however, common at a time when freedom – including financial independence – was equated with the ability to conduct scientific experiments impartially. Moreover, Lovelace devoted a little over a year to his publication alone, the translation and notes of Menabrea’s article on the analytical engine. Otherwise, in her life interrupted by cancer at 37, she has oscillated between mathematics, music, the demands of her mother, taking care of her three children and finally a passion for the game. -not be an obvious role model as a female scientist for girls today.

However, I find it inspiring how Lovelace draws on her comprehensive education to solve difficult problems. Admittedly, she lived in an era prior to scientific specialization. Even Babbage was a polymath who worked in mathematical computation and mechanical innovation. He also published a treatise on industrial manufacturing and another on the religious issues of creationism.

But Lovelace applied knowledge from what we now consider disparate areas of the sciences, arts, and humanities. A well-rounded thinker, she created solutions that were way ahead of her time.

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