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Women in Science: Ada Lovelace, the First Computer Programmer

Computers streamline everything we do, from making our grocery list to checking the weather. With the Apple iOS Store adding ~20,000 apps per month, more and more of us are trying our hand at computer programming. But who was the first computer programmer?

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
Episode #165

These days, we back up every email we send without even thinking about it, and we look to our computers to tell us the weather rather than looking outside. Today’s teenagers will never know a world without Twitter. At the age of two, my toddler already knows how to start up her favorite videos on my smart phone (the ones of herself, naturally).

With the Apple iOS Store adding ~20,000 apps per month, coders all over the world are turning computational problems into executable computer programs ranging from the simple to the extremely complex. But who was the first to do so?

The First Computer Programmer

Lady Ada Lovelace, born in 1815, is considered by many to be the first computer programmer. Her mother Annabella Milbanke fostered an interest in logic problems and mathematics with Ada from a young age—supposedly to combat the influence of what she saw as the volatile and erratic temperament of Ada’s father, the poet Lord Byron. Lord Byron is said to have been disappointed that Ada was not a son and left both her and her mother only months after Ada was born.

Ada’s upbringing was very unusual for a young girl in the aristocracy in the 1800s. She had tutors in mathematics and science, including Mary Somerville, a Scottish astronomer who became the first woman admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society. 

The First Computers

As an adult, Ada developed a friendship and working relationship with the mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage. In 1822, Babbage had proposed a design for what he called a Difference Engine, a mechanical calculator for tabulating polynomial functions. Such a machine, used by engineers, scientists, and navigators, would have been a significant economical advancement on the work of human data manipulation (so-called “human computers”), which required large amounts of time and introduced unavoidable human error into the computations.

Although in 1991, a perfectly functional version of Babbage’s difference engine was built from his original plans, Babbage was never able to produce a working difference engine himself. While the British government's funding of Babbage was motivated by economics, Babbage himself was more driven by the possibility of pushing his invention to the next level. Before completion of the difference engine, he became distracted by designs for an Analytical Engine, a machine meant to extend the applicability of the difference engine and that would become the first general purpose computer.

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About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt is an extragalactic astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology and Adjunct Faculty at the University of Virginia.

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