Faces of HPC: Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace, a prodigy of mathematics and logic, is credited as the first computer programmer. Her work with Charles Babbage on the Analytical Engine would produce designs for a computer, and a detailed account of how to code it, almost a century before the first machine was built.
Ada Lovelace, born The Honourable Augusta Ada Byron, is widely regarded as the first computer programmer – almost a century before the advent of any actual computing machines. Combining her profound understanding of mathematics and symbolic logic with the inventive inspiration of Charles Babbage, the two worked closely in designing an Analytical Engine. Combined with her creativity and insight, she was the first to describe taking algebraic commands, and turning them into code.
Born in 1815, Ada Lovelace was the only legitimate child of the Romantic poet, Lord Byron. Her mother, Anne Isabelle Milbanke, was well educated, especially in mathematics. Fearing the poetic temperament and ‘madness’ of her husband, Lady Byron separated from him just a month after Ada’s birth, and encouraged her daughter to study mathematics and science in the hopes of counteracting her father’s blood.
Ada Lovelace had incredible intelligence and a keen mind. She was raised under the tutorship of some of the best mathematical and scientific minds of the time, such as mathematician and symbolic logician Augustus de Morgan, and polymath and astronomer Mary Somerville.
This level and field of education was unusual for a woman at the time, though her capabilities impressed many of her male tutors. De Morgan believed, like many of Lovelace’s male tutors and colleagues, that “the very great tension of mind which [her maths problems] require is beyond the strength of a woman’s physical power of application.” Nevertheless, de Morgan also encouraged her to continue pursuing mathematics, and he believed that, had she been a man, Lovelace had the potential to become “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence.”
In 1833, aged only 18, Lovelace was introduced to Charles Babbage, another mathematician. He had received funding to work on a Differential Engine, capable of accurately calculating a table of values to be used in logarithmic or trigonometric equations. Before completing work on this machine, however, he began work on a new project, the Analytical Engine. This device was designed to be capable of performing a wide range of functions on its own, based on unique symbolic inputs. The design would be the very first instance of a modern computer.
The two formed a deep friendship, and Lovelace soon turned her focus to developing this Analytical Engine. Babbage gave a lecture on the design of his invention in 1842, and the notes were published by engineer Luigi Menabrea. Lovelace was commissioned to translate this paper and expand upon it, as Babbage believed she understood his designs even better than himself.
Her final amended paper was three times the original length, with seven additional notes. In the final addition, Note G, Lovelace detailed some of the applications for the Analytical Machine, such as graphic and musical production. Because of her detailed and comprehensive descriptions of breaking algebraic functions into code, Lovelace is credited as being the first computer programmer.
Sadly, this engine was never built. Lovelace died in 1852, when she was only 36. A century after her ground-breaking publication, Alan Turing would build from these original designs to create the first modern computing device – the Turing Machine.