A mathematician, considered to be the first computer programmer, and who mused upon the possibilities of artificial intelligence as early as the mid-1800s would be considered ground-breaking. That this pioneer was also a woman, who achieved all this by the age of 36 and whose scientific and mathematical education was designed primarily to prevent her from developing any moody and volatile artistic traits that may be in her genetic make-up, is really quite remarkable.
Ada Lovelace was a true trailblazer in the field of mathematics and a clear demonstration that women could excel, given the opportunity.
/ Female achievement backed by female belief
Ada Lovelace’s achievements in the male-dominated field of maths and science are not only inspiring in their own right but were made possible by another pioneering woman – Ada’s mother. Lady Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron (commonly known as Lady Annabella) was an aristocratic woman who believed that engaging her daughter in rigorous studies would override any tendencies towards the less desirable artistic characteristics she may have inherited from her father, the romantic poet Lord Byron. Lady Annabella’s marriage to Byron was short-lived, ending just weeks after Ada’s birth.
While driven by a desire to quell any artistic temperament Ada may have lurking in her genes (she was even forced to lie still for long periods to promote her ability for self-control), Lady Annabella was herself an accomplished mathematician and recognised a talent for the subject in Ada. (Lord Byron dubbed his wife ‘the Princess of Parallelograms’ and we don’t think this was meant as a compliment!).
With the advantage of wealth, Ada’s mother was able to employ leading tutors to educate her in maths, science, and languages – a rare education for even an aristocratic woman in these times. These educators included another ground-breaking woman, Mary Somerville – an astronomer and mathematician and one of the first women to be admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society.
/ The Difference Machine and the early concepts of the computer
At age 17, Lovelace was introduced to Charles Babbage. The leading mathematician and inventor inspired her and became her friend and mentor. In 1833, Babbage had invented the ‘Difference Machine’: a device that could make reliable calculations using numbered wheels. Ada was intrigued and shared her own studies and thoughts on how the prototype could be enhanced. She subsequently became involved with the development of Babbage’s next project, the ‘Analytical Engine’, which sought to perform even more complex functions.
/ The translation ‘notes’ that tripled the academic paper
In 1842, Babbage asked mathematician Luigi Federico Menabrea to write a paper about the Analytical Engine for a Swiss academic journal. Lovelace was tasked with translating the article from the original French that numbered around 8,000 words. Clearly, Lovelace felt the piece lacked detail and in addition to the translation, she added some ‘notes’ of her own, based on her extensive knowledge and understanding of the machine. The final edit – published in 1843 - came in at 20,000 words as she, according to Babbage, “entered fully into almost all the very difficult and abstract questions connected with the subject.”
Within these notes, Lovelace demonstrated the link between the machine and the Jacquard loom; both weaving algebraic patterns using a chain of punched cards. She set out a detailed plan of how the cards could weave a long sequence of Bernoulli numbers. This is widely recognised as being the first computer programme.
Her theories went further than limiting these devices to calculating numbers and perhaps showed that her STEM studies had failed to completely suppress her artistic DNA, when she proposed that symbols could be used to create music or art. This is the founding principle of computerisation: that any piece of content, including sounds, pictures, and numbers, could be expressed in digital form and manipulated by machines.
/ Attempt to reclaim the advances of computer programming as a male achievement
Sadly, Lovelace’s extensive contributions were not only largely unrecognised during her lifetime but were diminished and even discredited by male scholars in later years. Some claiming that she had overstated her input into the 1843 academic paper and even that she was deluded by her own talents. This “pipe down dear” attempt to marginalise a woman’s input into these extraordinary developments is perhaps not a surprise, even today.
However, recognition for her work did come in the 1950s, around 100 years after her death, and from no other than Alan Turing, who is, of course, best known for his work on the enigma machine during World War ll. He considered Babbage’s machine decades ahead of its time but Lovelace’s extension of Babbage’s thinking (including the relationship between humans and machines, the potential of artificial intelligence, and the societal uses for technology) truly remarkable. Her theories inspired Turing to conceive the ‘Turing Test’: the test of a machine’s ability to exhibit human-like intelligent behaviour.
As you might expect, even where her work was recognised at the time, her achievements were considered very much in masculine terms. Her obituary in the London Examiner said, “With an understanding thoroughly masculine in solidity, grasp and firmness, Lady Lovelace had all the delicacies of the most refined female character.” And her mentor, Charles Babbage, who called her the ‘Enchantress of Numbers’ once wrote that she “has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects (in our own country at least) could have exerted over it.”
/ A true trailblazer recognised
Thankfully, Ada Lovelace’s achievements have found their rightful place in the history books now. At Ada Meher, we feel a real affinity with Ada; so much so we named our organisation in homage to her. Just as Ada was overlooked during her lifetime, we know that many people feel this way even in 2021 – particularly when seeking the right role in this competitive field. We like to think of ourselves as champions of the overlooked: helping candidates shine a spotlight on their skills to recruiters, as well as finding the perfect matches for clients that had previously struggled to attract the right talent.
Ada Lovelace, therefore, was the perfect pioneering woman to feature on our blog during Women’s History Month. We’ll continue the theme over the rest of the month with pieces on other trailblazing women in STEM, to recognise their achievements and the path they laid for others to follow.