How a woman from the 1800s became the first computer programmer

In her recently released book Broad Band, Claire L. Evans wants readers to learn about women who have been forgotten in tech history. Ada Lovelace may not be a household name like Steve Jobs but she is possibly the first computer programmer. Following is a transcript of the video.

How A Woman From The 1800s Became The First Computer Programmer

Claire L. Evans: Ada Lovelace understood that if you could make a machine that calculated not just individual numbers but abstract variables that you could use computers to weave numbers, musical notes, any kind of symbolic language and that it could be applied to really anything in the way that it is in our modern world.

Ada Lovelace was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron. She was a mathematician in the Victorian Age, the very first computer programmer. Her father was known as a kind of louche, romantic, you know, a little bit seedy, a little bit crazy, a little bit wild. When he divorced her mother, she decided that she was going to try to curb out all the romantic tendencies in her daughter’s spirit by teaching her mathematics, rigorously, from a very young age. So she was instructed in the maths and sciences from childhood, but unfortunately, she retained some of her father’s poetic spirit, so she became fixated with the idea of mathematics as a form of poetry, and as a metaphysical art in and of itself.

She wrote all of these mathematicians and scientists of her day into corresponding with her and giving her lessons, but ultimately, yeah, she was an autodidact. She read everything she could get her hands on, she kept up-to-date with all the scientific publications of her day, she corresponded with people that she admired, and she organised little scientific salons in her immediate social circles. So she taught herself everything she knew. And she ended up spending her life developing mathematical proofs for the earliest computer. In fact, before computers were even built, she made mathematical proofs that can be characterised as the earliest computer programs for a machine called the difference engine and then the analytical engine.

So Ada Lovelace’s primary contribution to the history of computer science is a set of notes that she wrote that were footnotes of the translation of a paper written about Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, which was a machine that he was having a really hard time getting funded by the British government. He travelled around Europe giving talks about the machine. One of the people that saw one of those talks was a young Italian engineer named L. F. Menabrea, who ended up becoming the Prime Minister of Italy. He wrote a technical paper about the analytical engine that was published in a Swiss journal. Ada read it. She thought it was pretty good. But she thought she could do better.

She showed it to Babbage, and she said, “Couldn’t I do better than this?”, basically. She ended up creating a volume of notes that ended up being several times more voluminous than the original paper. She made a massive jump that wasn’t really recognised until the 1950s, the dawn of the computing age. A number of computer scientists rediscovered her notes and republished them because they had essentially predicted everything that they were doing in the early days of computing. We have to actively make sure that we develop our own history and keep it updated and maintain it and open it up to as many people as possible.

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