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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

Ada too was fascinated by Babbage’s plans for the Analytical Engine, and in 1843, she translated a description of the machine written by the Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea. Babbage felt that Ada truly understood the complexity of the engine, far beyond other scientists at the time, and so asked her to include with her translation her own notes on its design and potential. Those notes, which became larger than the original work itself, were published in the Scientific Memoirs journal and included methods for using the machine to perform example computations. These methods, which would have worked had the machine ever been built, are considered the first computer programs. 

Ada saw the potential applications for the Analytical Engine even beyond Babbage’s initial proposal, but dismissed the suggestion that it would in any way lead to the development of artificial intelligence. Her notes included the remark that the engine had “no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths,” an idea that remains a strong point of contention today.

Charles Babbage and his engineers were never able to build the Analytic Engine, due in part to inadequate funding. Although he first proposed the machine in 1837, the first general purpose computers were not built until more than a century later in the 1940s.

Ada Lovelace Day and Support for Women in STEM

Ada died of uterine cancer at the age of 36, only a few short years after her work on the first computer programs was published. Every year since 2009, October 13th is celebrated as Ada Lovelace Day, in recognition of her contributions to the field of computer programming and of her potential cut short.

Ada’s brief career also represents the achievements made possible by fostering an interest in math and science among young girls. Still, today girls receive subtle yet constant messages starting from a young age that science is a man’s regime.

Events associated with Ada Lovelace Day celebrate the contributions from women to STEM fields including talks by some of these women showcasing their research, and online stories describing the work of many, many others. There is also an opportunity to contribute your own story of a woman in science whose story has inspired you. You can find out more about Ada Lovelace Day events, as well as about Ada herself, at findingada.com.

Other organizations, like the Ada Initiative, are also supporting women in technology by advocating for changing outmoded aspects of the STEM culture that keep women from realizing their full potential.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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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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