Celebrating Women in STEM: Ada Lovelace

This month we celebrate an international holiday. The second Tuesday of the month, Oct. 10, is Ada Lovelace Day. Founded in 2009, this day celebrates the contributions of women to the STEM fields. But who was Ada Lovelace?

Augusta Ada Byron Lovelace, the daughter of the notorious romantic and poet, Lord Byron, was born in England in 1815. Her well-educated mother, Annabella Milbanke, had a passion for mathematics and was lovingly referred to as the “Princess of Parallelograms” by her husband.

Unfortunately, Lord Byron was abusive and adulterous, causing Lady Byron to leave her husband and raise their daughter alone. Terrified that Ada would turn into a poet like her father, Lady Byron insisted her daughter learn mathematics and science, despite the cultural norms of the time.

Ada Lovelace is referred to as the “Mother of Computer Science.” (Source spiremaths.co.uk)

Lovelace excelled in her studies, designing her own steam-powered flying machine by age twelve.

In 1833, at the age of seventeen, Lovelace met a man who would change her life: Charles Babbage. An inventor and mathematics professor at Cambridge University, Babbage and Byron became friends and regularly collaborated with one another.

Babbage had already designed a calculating machine known as the Difference Engine (though he never built it), and was working on another, more sophisticated machine called the Analytical Engine. This invention was the world’s first programmable computer.

An Italian named Louis Menabrea wrote an article in 1842 in French about the Analytical Engine. Lovelace, fluent in French thanks to her mother’s tutors, translated the work into English for Babbage.

As she translated, Lovelace added her own notes to the manuscript, more than tripling the length, and published the translation and notes in 1843 under the initials “A.A.L.”

In her notes was something interesting: the first published description of a step-by-step function that could take input from punch cards and calculate the Bernoulli numbers using the Engine.

This “code” earned Lovelace recognition (long after her death) as the first computer programmer.

More importantly, Lovelace saw this machine for what it was: the future. While Babbage saw his machine as a calculator, she theorized the Engine could someday be used to create music and graphics, solving complex problems with little human interaction.

While she couldn’t have known then just how important machines would become, her future-sight earned Lovelace the title of “Mother of Computer Science.”

Lovelace also had a successful family life. In 1835, she married William King. When he inherited a title in 1838 (as Earl of Lovelace), the new countess earned the title she would hold forever in history: Ada Lovelace.

The two were happily married and had three children together, who were all under the age of eight at the time Lovelace was working on her manuscript. She had an active social life, acquiring important friends such as Mary Somerville, Charles Dickens and Michael Faraday.

Sadly, Lady Lovelace met an early end at the age of 37 due to cancer.

Today, Ada Lovelace is celebrated as a pioneer in modern computing and one of the strongest role models for young female programmers. While some have suggested that her fame is unearned (even arguing that because her code was written on paper, it shouldn’t count as a computer program), her publication is strong evidence of her contributions to her field.

The U.S. Department of Defense even named a computer language after her in 1979. “Ada” is still used by programmers today.

Are you interested in empowering women in the STEM fields? The Women in Science (Wi-Sci) group wants you! Meetings every Friday in the Women’s Center, 12 – 1 pm.

Mew9bc@mail.umkc.edu

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