Women’s History Month is upon us, and the Leahy Center wants to celebrate. This March, we will be highlighting five pioneering women and their accomplishments in the fields of computer science and information technology. These women made groundbreaking contributions to their fields while emphasizing the importance of accessibility and digestibility in technology. Despite facing daily misogyny in a male-dominated field, these women proved what is possible when we allow creativity and humanity to lead us.
The World’s First Programmer (1815-1852)
Though her work wouldn’t gain large-scale recognition until the 1950s, there is no doubt Ada Lovelace was one of the first minds to conceptualize the possibilities of the computer.
As the daughter of esteemed romantic poet Lord Byron and heiress/mathematician Annabella Milbanke (Lady Byron), Lovelace had a unique upbringing that nurtured her natural talents.
Afraid she might grow into the moody writer’s temperament her estranged father had, Lady Byron made sure her daughter was privately tutored in subjects of logic. This included mathematics, science, and French. The family’s status also allowed Ada to meet and study with influential thought-leaders of the time, like William Frend, a social reformer and writer, and Mary Somerville, an astronomer and mathematician.
At the age of seventeen, Lovelace met Charles Babbage. Babbage was an inventor working on a calculating machine called the Difference Engine. Lovelace had an interest in Babbage’s work, and they soon developed a close friendship and mentorship. Babbage introduced Lovelace to Augustus de Morgan, the first professor of mathematics at the University of London. Under him, Lovelace informally began her studies in advanced mathematics.
Though Lady Byron may have hoped the logic-driven side of her daughter’s brain would prevail, a love for both arts and science became Lovelace’s greatest asset. She called herself a “poetical scientist” and highlighted the importance of intuition and imagination in mathematics and science. Unlike her counterparts at the time, Lovelace could interpret the meaning of data, rather than simply perform the calculations. Her ability to creatively think and problem-solve made her ideas far ahead of their time.
Lovelace’s breakthrough idea came in the mid-1800s after Charles Babbage introduced his next big idea: the Analytical Engine. This machine would theoretically be able to solve any kind of mathematical calculation it was given. Though there wasn’t enough funding for Babbage to create more than a prototype, his idea sparked curiosity throughout Europe.
One interested party was Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea, who wrote an article breaking down Babbage’s idea. He asked Lovelace to translate the French document into English. Not only did Lovelace translate his work, but she also added three pages of her own. Lovelace’s “Notes” explained how Babbage’s engine could be “programmed” to do more than merely calculate. She saw possibilities far beyond Babbage’s view. She claimed the machine “might act upon other things besides number… the Engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.” Lovelace saw how a system of codes could be created to handle letters, symbols, and numbers in the machine, much like a modern-day computer does today.
Though the terminology was different, the operations described in Lovelace’s notes were “functionally equivalent to the conditional branching, looping, and parallel processing operations of early electronic computers,” making her one of the first programmers in history.
Lovelace’s contributions to the fields of mathematics and technology weren’t recognized for decades after her death in 1852. Since then, however, she’s received many posthumous honors and has awards named after her that are given to those excelling in similar fields. In 1980, the U.S. Department of Defense even named a newly developed computer language “Ada,” after her.
Ada Lovelace saw how the use of technology could enrich everyday life. Her work paved the way for computer programmers of the future and proved how valuable creativity is in STEM.
Read about other influential women who’ve shaped technology on the Leahy Center’s blog page.
Written by Tanner Rubino ‘22 // Professional Writing