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Women’s History Month: Ada Lovelace – The Enchantress of Numbers

I can say with 100% certainty that you are reading these words on a computing device. Whether it’s a desktop, laptop, phone, tablet, you’re reading this via a program that someone wrote, on an operating system that’s probably some variation of a program created years ago by Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.

Apps, programs, secret computer magics, whatever you want to call them, virtually every electronic device we use today runs on some sort of mathematical code. The idea of the computer program can be traced back to 1843 and “The Right Honourable the Countess of Lovelace,” Augusta Ada Byron, more easily known as Ada Lovelace.

 

In 1822 a mathematician named Charles Babbage proposed the use of a machine that would compute astronomical and mathematical tables. He called it The Difference Engine. The British Government funded the project but after 20 years of work Babbage still hadn’t delivered a functioning Difference Engine. He moved on to the more complicated Analytical Engine, which would be operated by punch cards, a practice used with computers into the 1960s.

While Babbage was doing all that, Ada Lovelace was studying math and science. At age 17 she showed a remarkable talent for mathematics, and the study of math became her primary focus in life.

She met Babbage and corresponded with him about his computer Engines. In 1842 Babbage gave a lecture about his analytical engine. Notes on the lecture were written in French, and Babbage invited Ada to translate the notes into English and to expound upon them. Her additions ended up being longer than the original lecture! She described an algorithm, the first ever specifically created for use on a computer.

In 1953 the notes were republished, and Ada Lovelace became recognized as having created the first computer program. In 1989 the London Science Museum finally built The Difference Engine based on Babbage and Lovelace’s plans.

“Forget this world and all its troubles and if possible its multitudinous Charlatans – every thing in short but the Enchantress of Numbers.”    – Charles Babbage, of Ada Lovelace

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