In the male-dominated field of computer science in the 20th century, women were often relegated to mundane tasks. At first, they were given the role of “computor,” and assigned repetitive tasks as one might employ a girl from a typist pool. Remarkably, six women who worked in the developing industry are recognized as the world's first professional computer programmers. These women were preceded, some 100 years earlier, however, by one of technology's greatest innovators. Her name was Ada, the Countess of Lovelace. (For more on early computer programming, see The Pioneers of Computer Programming.)

Poetical Science

Who was Ada Lovelace? It's complicated. Augusta Ada Byron Lovelace was a lover of numbers. She was the daughter of a famous poet. She called herself an “Analyst and Metaphysician." And she played a major role in the development of the Analytical Engine of Charles Babbage. (To learn more, see The Analytical Engine: A Look Back at Babbage's Timeless Designs.)

Ada Lovelace was born in 1815 to George Gordon Byron, a flamboyant Luddite who railed against the mechanization of the weaving industry. Lord Byron would also be remembered as one of England's greatest poets. A reputed philanderer, he left his wife and daughter not long after the child was born. Ada's mother, aiming to steer her away from the creative enterprises that she believed may have brought out the worst in her poet husband, put Ada through the paces in mathematics, music, geography, languages and astronomy.

Education in the hard sciences never overcame the softer side of Ada Lovelace. She once asked one of her tutors “why a rainbow appears to the spectator to be an arc of a circle.” Ada once wrote to her mother, “If you can't give me poetry, can't you give me poetical science?” Her collaborator Charles Babbage referred to her affectionately as “the enchantress of numbers.”

Imagination: The Combining Faculty

For many people, hard science and the humanities are quite distinct. Ada Lovelace, on the other hand, held to a view of the sciences that bordered on the supernatural. She believed that one's imagination has the power to combine seemingly disparate disciplines. Trained in mathematics, she retained powers that were not unlike the creative abilities of her absent father. Ada wrote:

“What is imagination? It is the Combining faculty. It brings together things, facts, ideas, conceptions in new original, endless, ever-varying combinations… It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science.”

For Ada Lovelace, scientific discovery was more than boring research. It was a fascinating adventure into worlds unknown, one that required as much intuition and imagination as it did mathematical skill. Ada's imaginative powers brought seemingly unlike things together, just as the Analytical Engine, she wrote, clearly “unites those things that are mutually dependent.”

Ada wrote of Babbage's invention that “the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.” She was interested in the “beauty, symmetry, and logical completeness” of mathematical science. Such was the “combining faculty” of Ada's imagination.

Contributions to Computer Science

The Analytical Engine, as Ada put it, was “an embodying of the science of operations.” Babbage wanted to create a digital machine that could process and store data using a punch card system borrowed from the weaving industry. The Analytical Engine would be a general-purpose computer. The project was the successor to Babbage's Difference Engine, which was to employ some 25,000 mechanical parts. Government funding was discontinued and neither machine was finished.

Ada met Babbage when she was only seventeen years old, and she would become instrumental in explaining his work to the world. In her “Notes by the Translator”, an addendum to her translation of L.F. Menabrea's paper on the Analytical Engine, Ada introduced four key concepts, as identified by Walter Isaacson in his book "The Innovators":

  1. A general-purpose machine could be preset to accomplish an unlimited set of tasks through limitless variations in programming. Babbage employed punch cards for this purpose, a technology borrowed from the silk-weaving industry.
  2. The field of computing should not be limited to numbers. By symbolic logic, computers can be used for analysis in areas that are beyond standard mathematics. Ada even proposed the use of computers to compose and play music.
  3. Algorithms, such as those she developed to address Bernoulli numbers, can be used by computing devices to solve complex problems. Ada even predicted the use of subroutines and recursive loops.
  4. Machines cannot think. The Analytical Engine is unable to originate anything. “It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths.” This assertion was later referred to by Alan Turing as “Lady Lovelace's Objection,” and it still has great bearing today on the ongoing debate regarding artificial intelligence.

Ada Lovelace was concerned with the “science of operations.” In her “Notes," she said that “logic has its own peculiar truth and value, independently of the subjects to which we may apply its reasonings and processes.” Ada was penetrating unseen worlds of science, exploring mathematical ideas and their “ever-varying combinations.”

Ada's Legacy and Her Place in the History of Computing

Ada Lovelace's contribution to computer science was practically forgotten for a century. Early critics downplayed the importance of Ada's efforts. Researchers eventually rediscovered her work and recognized its significance.

Today Ada's place in history is secure. Her far-reaching analysis offers insight into the ways imagination can open up new worlds with the aid of a computer. She is a model for those women who dare to enter fields once dominated by men. And she is a prime example for those who believe that through inspired investigation — “poetical science” — new worlds can be discovered.

The U.S. Department of Defense recognized her achievements by naming its high-order, object-oriented programming language Ada. The military standard manual MIL-STD-1815 was approved on December 10, 1980, on what would have been Ada's 165th birthday.