Women Who Changed Tech - Ada Lovelace


Aspiring pilot, expert embroiderer, and the first computer programmer

In a previous post, we shared a video about five trailblazers who paved the way for future generations. This is the first blog in a series, where we will delve into the stories of these pioneering women and explore how their innovations have shaped the world we know today.

Breaking away from the shadow of her father, Ada Lovelace left an indelible mark in the world of computing. Ada Lovelace, also known as Augusta Ada King, was born in 1815 in England to a socialite and descendant of British nobility, Anne Isabelle Milbanke, and the infamous poet Lord Byron. From a young age, Lovelace had a fascination with innovation, dreaming of taking to the skies by studying birds, designing makeshift bird wings, and authoring a guide she titled “Flyology.” Her mother, recognizing her potential, made Lovelace's education a priority, hiring private tutors to instruct Ada in a variety of subjects, including languages, music, handicrafts, and mathematics. Lovelace's broad education and her ability to make unconventional connections proved invaluable to the groundbreaking strides she would make in computer technology.

At a socialite party in June of 1833, Ada Lovelace made her debut in English society at the age of 17. There she met Charles Babbage, an English mathematician and inventor, who would become her mentor and partner in innovation. Babbage was enthusiastic about sharing his love for computation with Ada and invited her to see his newest invention, a partially constructed calculating machine he called the Difference Engine. Thus began Lovelace's journey into the world of computing.

A member of the Royal Astronomical Society, Babbage was inspired by the tables of calculations (known as logarithm tables) that sailors used for navigation. These tables were produced manually and were prone to human error, which could result in a ship losing course or getting stuck in shallow water. When traveling across treacherous waters, these situations could be deadly.

The Difference Engine, which was never completed during Babbage's lifetime, was eventually fully built in the 1980s by former London Science Museum curator, Doron Swade, and a team of engineers. The engine was built using Babbage's original designs using only materials that were available in the 1800s. It consists of metal columns filled with numbered wheels that performed arithmetic calculations repeatedly, adhering to the mathematical method of finite differences (hence its name). The engine is designed to produce a series of values for navigation tables to aid sailors. Like modern computers, the engine had inputs and outputs and could even stamp its calculations onto a soft metal printing plate.

The engine’s size is striking, as it “fills half a gallery and stands taller than most men,” according to NPR reporter Laura Sydell who observed Swade’s reconstruction. Weighing in at five5 tons, the behemoth is made of 8,000 individual metal parts and powered by a hand crank. However, this is not what Ada saw in 1833. Back at Babbage’s house, the Difference Engine was merely a two-foot-tall prototype. Nevertheless, she was immediately intrigued, which led to two decades of regular correspondence with Babbage, during which they discussed the machine, among other topics.

Under Babbage’s direction, the Dference Engine didn’t exactly flourish, remaining incomplete after ten years of work. Babbage ran out of funding from the British government and had a falling out with the chief engineer. Fortunately, Babbage had envisioned a more sophisticated version, the Analytical Engine, the machine through which Ada’s ingenuity would soon become apparent.

The Analytical Engine could physically store the data it produced and use it in future calculations, unlike the Difference Engine, which required operators to feed it continuously with new information by setting the pre-values of its columns. Babbage nicknamed the Analytical Engine "the engine eating its own tail" for this ability.  It could perform multiplication and division, hold 1,000 fifty-digit numbers, and produce outputs in many formats. Additionally, the machine was powered by steam.

Ada married English baron William King in 1835, a mere two years after she first viewed the Difference Engine. Despite having and raising three children over the next four years, Ada never forgot her passion for mathematics and began studying calculus in 1839. These studies instilled a sense of confidence in her abilities. In a letter to her mother, she wrote, “I believe myself to possess a most singular combination of qualities exactly fitted to make me pre-eminently a discoverer of the hidden realities of nature.”

By 1840, Babbage was ready to promote the Analytical Engine and set off to Turin, Italy. There, he persuaded Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea to write a paper about it, a massive 8,000-word document that was only suitable for a machine of equal size. This paper, published in a Swiss journal two years later, would serve as the foundation on which Ada built her computer program, decades before the first computer would be invented.

Ada was tasked with translating Menabrea’s French to English, adding her own notes, which she signed “A.A.L.” Her work resulted in a document that expanded to over 20,000 words. Ada and Babbage constantly exchanged letters as she figured out how the Analytical Engine could function much like a Jacquard Loom to compute Bernoulli numbers. Using her affinity for recognizing patterns, Ada realized that the Analytical Engine could operate similarly to the Jacquard Loom, which could follow a pattern by inserting punch cards to produce woven designs.She surmised that punch cards could be used with the Analytical Engine to perform calculations, but instead of using fibers, it utilized algebraic principles.

As she worked and “debugged” her "code,” Ada incorporated programming elements that we now recognize as loops, nested loops, and conditional testing. She poetically noted that “in devising for mathematical truths a new form in which to record and throw themselves out for actual use, views are likely to be induced, which should again react on the more theoretical phase of the subject.”

Lovelace’s translated works and notes were published in 1843, and in her notes, she classified these new functions as “the science of operations.” However, Ada's ambition didn't end there. Ada asked Babbage if, “there would be any chance of allowing myself...to conduct the business for you; your own undivided energies being devoted to the execution of the work.” Her proposal effectively inquired if she could become the head of the business the engine could attract, a role similar to that of a modern-day CEO. Though Ada and Babbage's correspondence indicates he accepted her proposal, Ada's health began to deteriorate, and inventor David Brewster eventually wrote about the Engine instead. Ada searched for another technology for which to showcase her mathematical prowess, but she was denied access to London’s Royal Society’s library. In addition, her growing children demanded more of her attention, and her health declined further. Following Ada's death from what was likely cervical cancer in late 1852, Babbage failed to make any more significant progress on the Analytical Machine.

Despite the groundbreaking potential of Ada’s notes, her work went through a dark age for over a century. Babbage ran out of funding to complete the project, causing him to abandon the Analytical Engine, and Ada’s notes were forgotten. Nearly a century after her death, her note stating that the Engine could not originate anything, but only do what it was told, would be referenced in Alan Turing’s famous 1950 paper on artificial intelligence (featuring his famous Turing Test), titled “Computing Machinery and Intelligence." Three years later in 1953, nuclear physicist Bertram Bowden republished more of her notes in his book Faster Than Thought, outlining how computers work by following patterns.

Ada’s legacy lives on today. The U.S. Department of Defense named a software language after her in 1979 called “Ada,” which combines multiple programming languages, inspired by Ada’s multidisciplinary genius. Numerous biographies have been written about Ada, and to honor women's contributions to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), the second Tuesday of every October is now known as Ada Lovelace Day. Additionally, the Ada Initiative was launched in 2011 to arrange conferences and training to support women in STEM fields.

Carla Guzzetti, the Senior Vice President of Product Marketing and Customer Experience at Extreme Networks, believes that Ada Lovelace's approach to computer programming can teach us valuable lessons for the future:

“Technology has evolved significantly since Ada’s time and in recent modern history, humans have innovated for the sake of innovation,” she states. Carla believes that in order to use computers to solve problems, we need to bring the problem closer to technology, not the human using it. We need to empathize with the individual, focusing on new ways of communication with computers, such as linguistics, nonverbal communication, and human action. “Ada’s insight to understanding computer language is derived from her study of poetry and upbringing, being the daughter of Lord Byron,” Carla identifies. “It is the intersection of science and humanity that will always improve and evolve computer programming.”

Ada Lovelace's contributions to computer science and her vision for the future of computing have had a profound impact on modern technology and continue to inspire new generations of innovators. Join us again next month as we continue to delve into the stories of pioneering women, exploring how their innovations have shaped the world we know today and what their legacy could mean for the future of technology.

Posted In
About the Author
Extreme Office of the CTO - OCTO
Office of the CTO

The Office of the CTO at Extreme Network analyzes forthcoming inflection points and trends for a wide audience – a relatable, trusted resource for future facing, new ideas at the cutting edge of technology and networking.

Full Bio