“Certain ways of thinking about things make it more easy for you to adapt to a world that technology has a role in…You have to understand that the operating system is abstracting this in a way that’s supposed to make it easy for you, but you have to be able to understand the metaphor: ‘When I click and drag this thing,’ there’s actually not a physical thing that’s happening…the computer’s showing you a picture to help you understand and help you get organized…”
For most users, this is a given. We do our computing in a lush, hyperlinked world of streaming video, .gifs, and audio, where the metaphors are understood and made invisible by that understanding. Programs make the metaphor work. A far cry from computing’s humble origins, which go as far back as 2400 BCE with the Roman abacus or the Greek Antikythera mechanism of the second century BCE. In fact, we can trace the origin of the word “computer” to a 1613 text, The yong mans gleanings. In the 18th century and beyond, “computer” referred to the people, often women, who compiled tables of mathematical calculations for astronomy and navigation. In the 19th century, before the advent of digital computing, Charles Babbage was working on his Analytical Engine, a theoretical machine that could execute complicated equations—if it were ever built.
Ada Lovelace corrected mistakes in Babbage’s designs and wrote an algorithm that would allow the machine to compute Bernoulli numbers, computing’s first program.
Ada Lovelace was born in 1815 to Anne Milbanke, a mathematician, and Lord Byron, the notorious rock star of 19th century verse. Shortly after her birth, her parents separated and Byron exiled himself to Greece where he died in 1824. Ada was raised by her mother and tutored almost exclusively in math. As a young woman, she befriended Babbage, as well as Mary Somerville (a well-regarded mathematician, scientist, and suffragette), Charles Wheatstone, Michael Faraday, and Charles Dickens. In 1842, she set to translating Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage, Esq., an 1840 lecture delivered by Babbage in Turin, in Italian, as recorded by Luigi Menabrea. She expanded this translation nearly threefold with notes, which include the first computer program. Unfortunately, Ada never got to see her program in action, as Babbage’s machine was never built. Ada died in 1852 of cancer.
Almost a century later, Alan Turing cited Ada Lovelace in his 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Turing posed the question, “Can machines think?” While outlining the limitations that others have posed to the question of thinking machines, he described what he called Lady Lovelace’s Objection. In her words: “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform.” Turing’s paper posed the Imitation Game, often referred to as the Turing Test, in which a human talks to two interlocutors—one of whom is human, the other machine—and tries to determine which is which.
Ada Lovelace’s translation of Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage, Esq. was republished in 1953. In the 1970’s, the U.S. Department of Defense named a computer programming language ADA as tribute to Lovelace, and the British Computer Society annually awards the Lovelace medal for notable contributions to computer science and holds Lovelace lectures given by those awarded.
There are a number of wonderful women whose contributions to the history of computing, like Ada’s, are not often discussed but deserve celebration. Grace Hopper, a Yale Ph.D. and Navy Admiral, developed a compiler for the UNIVAC computer that translated source code into machine-readable language and helped develop the programming language COBOL, still used in business, finance, and government computing. Hopper also popularized the term “debugging,” coined after she removed a moth stuck in the Mark 2 computer at Harvard University. While Hopper was working at Harvard, Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas, and Ruth Lichterman—all former human computers, calculating trajectories for firing tables—were programming, debugging, and maintaining the ENIAC computer for the U.S. Army. At the time, photographs of the six working with ENIAC circulated without identifying the women or their roles. Jean Bartik, then Betty Jennings, remarked in a 2010 interview it was not until 1986 that they received recognition for their accomplishments.
This year, we celebrate Ada Lovelace Day on October 13th, to remember Ada but also to celebrate the hard work of a number of women whose contributions to computing, science, and technology have gone unsung. Learn more about Ada Lovelace Day at findingada.com.
For more information, please check out:
Abbate, Janet. Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation In Computing.Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012. Available online.
Gleick, James. The Information : a History, a Theory, a Flood. 1st Vintage Books ed., 2012. New York: Vintage Books, 2011. Available at Wells.
Isaacson, Walter. The Innovators : How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. First Simon & Schuster hardcover edition. 2014. Available at Wells.
Misa, Thomas J. Gender Codes: Why Women Are Leaving Computing. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley , 2010. Available online.
“The Ada Lovelace Episode: Who was the Enchantress of Numbers?” Stuff You Missed in History Class.
Woodfield, Ruth. Women, Work and Computing. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Available online.