Has Alan Turing ever met Grace Hopper

Ada Lovelace - working on the forerunner of the computer

Women in Tech - The role of women in technical progress

Welcome to our first blog post talking about successful women in tech. Our first example immediately deviates a little from this description, because the woman we are talking about today lived long before the tech industry existed as it is today. We are talking about the English aristocrat Ada Lovelace.

Who Was Ada Lovelace?

Ada Lovelace was born in London in 1815. She was the daughter of Baroness Anna Isabella Noel and her husband, the English poet Lord Byron. Her mother Anna was enthusiastic about mathematics at a young age and passed this enthusiasm on to her daughter. Ada, however, never met her father - her mother separated from the poet shortly after she was born.

The baroness attached great importance to her daughter's education, even if her interest in science and her presence at relevant events did not correspond to the conventions of the time. Not least because of this, the young Ada mainly received lessons from various tutors. But she also took part in many evening party meetings where she met various scientists. So it was that Ada Lovelace met the mathematician Charles Babbage. Her work for and with him laid the foundation for her achievements that are so well known today.

Portrait of Ada Lovelace by William Henry Mote

What is she known for?

First of all: opinions on Ada Lovelace differ greatly. Some see her as an absolute visionary who was way ahead of her time, while others question almost all of her achievements. The truth is probably somewhere between these views. In any case, the Englishwoman is known for her comments on Charles Babbag's work.

It was precisely this Charles Babbage who designed the “Analytical Engine” from 1833 onwards. This is a calculating machine that could have been considered the early forerunner of our computers had he ever been able to build it. In 1842 Ada Lovelace translated a treatise on the machine into English and Babbage asked her to add her own comments. Depending on the source, their “Notes” ended up being double to triple the original treatise. She had also added suggestions for calculating Bernoulli's numbers to the expanded paper. This proposal is now considered the first known computer program in many circles.

The famous comments, however, are also part of the controversy surrounding them. In the meantime it seems to be quite clear that the calculation of the Bernoulli numbers come largely or entirely from Babbage and were only written down in the Notes.

Nonetheless, many of her comments have become very well known, because Ada Lovelace also saw great potential in the machine and predicted areas of application that were still gray theory at the time. For example, she spoke of the fact that the machine could compute almost anything that could be formalized and even write its own pieces of music:

The engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.

These remarks describe the machine's potential as that of a computer. Their objection that the analytical engine could not have any knowledge was later called "Lady Lovelace's Objection" by Alan Turing and still employs women scientists around the world in the field of artificial intelligence .

Model of the Analytical Engine in the Science Museum London, by Bruno Barral (ByB), CC BY-SA 2.5

Here, too, it cannot be conclusively determined whether all of these thoughts were her own. Still: self if none of the thoughts were her own, the notes assume a fundamental understanding of the machine. The fact that Babbage asked for her comments also shows his confidence in her ability.

She was not allowed to study and taught herself a large part of her math skills. Because of these limitations, too, their achievements for this time are amazing. It not only took a lot of self-confidence to work against the conventions to this extent, but also a lot of skill and perseverance.

You can find more information about the comments, for example, on the website of the Faculty of Computer Science at the University of Madgeburg.

Effects on Today

As you may have guessed, there is little direct impact from Lady Lovelace’s work. The analytical engine was never built (functional). Nonetheless, the work of Lovelace and Babbage is an inspiration and it continues to spark lively discussions today.

The extraordinary thing about her work is not the impact on the present day, but the fact that the potential of a “calculating machine” has been recognized as a computer. The analytical engine itself, however, inspired some early computers; incidentally, a computer that performed as well as Babbage predicted was not completed by Konrad Zuse until 1960.

Ada, in turn, is the namesake of the Ada programming language. It still inspires countless working groups today, from working groups in schools to international organizations.

There are some foundations and projects that, inspired by Ms. Lovelace, are dedicated to the advancement of women and even have them in their names.

  • Finding Ada

    International organization which, among other things, organizes Ada Lovelace Day, a worldwide blogging event

  • Ada initiative

    The Ada Initiative has been inactive since 2015. Still, you can find valuable resources on the website.