The world’s first programmer, Ada Lovelace, lived about a century before the first digital computers appeared. Colossus, the world’s first electronic computer, developed by the British, appeared during World War Two. It helped British wartime codebreakers to decipher high-level German army messages. ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), developed by the Americans to help in wartime, was finished in 1946. The production of the Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC), the first special-purpose electronic computer, started a bit before the other two. The development of ABC happened during 1937-1942, with the process being discontinued due to the War. Until 1942, there was a small ABC prototype that stored data in binary form and performed additions and subtraction. A century before this, Ada Lovelace had already made her notable contribution. 

Ada Lovelace, born in 1815, was a mathematician who worked on what’s believed to be the world’s first computer, the Analytical Engine (Charles Babbage’s invention). The thing is, they never finished the project. But, because her notes described innovative potential developments for the Analytical Engine, she earned the title of the world’s first programmer. She mentioned ideas such as how the machine could be programmed to calculate Bernoulli’s numbers. And how it could perform various actions without an individual’s involvement. Her peers looked up to her, her creativity, and her capacity to articulate innovative ideas for that time. Let’s learn more about her:

Quick History of Ada Lovelace

Known first as Augusta Ada Byron and Lady Byron, she grew up in an uneasy family situation. Her mother studied advanced mathematics (pretty unusual for women during those times). Her father, Lord Byron, was a famous British Romantic poet and satirist (you might know him as the writer of Don Juan). As her parents separated shortly after her birth, with her father leaving England, her mother prioritized mathematics in Ada’s education. She received private education early on and then moved on to self-education. One of her closest tutors was the first professor of mathematics at the University of London, Augustus De Morgan. 

Her education developed her analytical skills, as her mother wanted to drive her away from her father’s creative inheritance. Still, Ada Lovelace decided to also pursue topics such as literature and writing, developing a passion for these soon. Her diverse interests and skills got her to befriend various people, from scientists (such as Charles Wheatstone) to writers (such as Charles Dickens). As she defied stereotypes by mixing the creative and analytical worlds, many regard her work as “poetical science”. In other words, she was “the first person to marry the mathematical capabilities of computational machines with the poetic possibilities of symbolic logic applied with imagination” – source. Around the 1830s, she met her future mentor and colleague and the inventor of the first automatic digital computer, Charles Babbage

While working together on developing the Analytical Engine, Ada Lovelace continued pursuing her passion for the creative side. Babbage and other well-known inventors looked up to her and to her various abilities outside of the world of mathematics. Besides studying poetry and writing, she also fancied playing the harp and horseback riding. In a letter to Michael Faraday, Babbage described Ada as “that Enchantress who 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” – source

So, what makes her the world’s first programmer?

During a trip to Turin to promote the Analytical Engine, Babbage met the mathematician Luigi Federico Menabrea. Convinced the machine deserved more attention, he published an 8000-word paper about the Analytical Engine in a Swiss academic journal. Then, Ada Lovelace translated the paper into English. While translating it, she also took the time to add her own notes. Her version of the paper became three times bigger and included many other ideas and thoughts. In her notes, she easily articulated potential developments of the Analytical Engine, mentioning the machine could go as far as creating music, for example. Her innovative imagination and ability to clearly express her ideas helped her observe that “any machine capable of manipulating numbers could also manipulate symbols” (source). 

Ada got her peers’ recognition by letting her innovative imagination run free and easily articulating her thoughts. She foretold “the arrival of general-purpose computers nearly a hundred years before they were made.” – source. As Zoe Philpott mentions in her speech during TEDxBucharest in 2016, Ada realized that machines such as the Analytical Engine would be able to “be the tool of human imagination”. Sadly, they never finished their work on the Analytical Engine. The project stopped due to Charles Babbage’s death (79 years old). He also worked on it without Ada for a while, due to her early death (37 years old). But, their contribution is a pivotal moment in the development of computer science. After all, her vision started the conversation on machines that could calculate results without them being “worked out by human head and hands first,” – source

Final Thoughts

Ada was an inspiring individual whose ideas and work were ahead of their time. Her achievements show the potential that unlocks when one focuses on developing both their creative and analytical sides. Mixing these two different, yet complementary worlds, allows one to innovate. If you’re curious about her notes, go through Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage … with notes by the translator. To celebrate her achievement, around the late seventies and early eighties,  the U.S. Department of Defense developed a computer language for large-scale programming called Ada. And, you can still use it for your projects.

She also has an International Day celebrating her – on the second Tuesday of October. And, if you want to read more about her (and you’ve already gone through the resources shared until this point), check out this article from The New Yorker. There are also several podcasts that covered her story in episodes, such as In Our Time or Ridiculous History. Here you can find the University of Oxford’s list of podcast episodes with mentions of Ada Lovelace. And, if you’re in for one more TEDx episode, check out this one where Linda Liukas talks about The poetry of programming at TEDxCERN.