By the 1800s, long before the famous Enigma machine and military computerization to decipher codes, a Victorian woman trapped in a patriarchal world, glimpsed the potential reach of computing and the change it would impose on humanity.
On every second Tuesday of October we celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, a day which seeks to increase the profile and celebrate the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers, and as an inspiration for next generations.
The main celebration (called the “science cabaret”) will take place this year at the Ri, in London. Throughout an extensive session, some female researchers will share the findings of their latest projects. There will also be time for recreation, so women from around the world can build closer technological ties.
Suw Charman-Anderson had the idea of commemorating this day in 2009 and although eight years have passed since its conception, only a few people in our industry know of its existence. Even more, although many may recognize the name of Ada Lovelace as the first person who created a computer program, few can identify the extent of her scientific imprint.
So what better time to investigate and find out a little more about this great woman and understand why her legacy continues to inspire hundreds of scientists around the world?
Who was Lady Ada Lovelace?
By the 1800s, long before the famous Enigma machine and military computerization to decipher codes, Lady Ada Lovelace, a Victorian woman trapped in a patriarchal world, glimpsed the potential reach of computing and the change it would impose on humanity.
She was the only legitimate daughter of the poet Lord Byron, but Ada would not see him again after the age of five because of the stormy relationship between her parents. Ada’s mother, Annabella, who would take care of her upbringing, and was also a woman who advocated the importance of numbers. Her scientific influence and her aristocratic connections allowed Ada to grow up surrounded by well-known mathematicians, being visible in a context where science was purely the domain of men.
At age 17, Ada would meet Charles Babbage, a well-known mathematician who would be her mentor for the rest of her life. At that time, Babbage was working on the “differential engine”: a computer able to approximate equations by sums and is on display in the Science Museum of London.
Shortly afterwards, Babbage would devise an even bigger project: the analytical engine, a monstrous coal-powered machine, much more powerful than the differential machine —capable of solving any kind of arithmetic problem. The analytical engine included all the logical principles of a current computer and would change the legacy of Ada for generations to come.
Ada understood Babbage’s design even better than its creator did. She also realized that this general-purpose computer would potentially serve a myriad of operations, far more than performing the bank calculations for which it was originally intended. She described her dream of a computerized world in the book Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs, one of the most visionary documents in the history of science, published in 1843. In it, Ada related the possibility of machines that can perform such abstract tasks as composing music, regardless the complexity of the piece. For this reason, her writings would later be cited by Turing in his essays on Artificial Intelligence. Curiously, you cannot see her name right until the end of the document, where her initials stand out.
Ada devoted a decade of her life to demonstrating the computational possibilities of the analytic engine, of which her contemporaries did not even suspect. At the age of 27, she developed the use of perforated cards as a method of entering data into the system based on the Jacquard mechanism (using perforated cards to weave fabrics automatically using a binary system to control needles) and even described an example of its use to create Bernoulli numbers. This is what would eventually be recognized as the first computer program ever written.
Perhaps it was the combination of her mother’s mathematical judgment and her father’s galloping imagination that allowed Ada to discover the mathematical essence of the universe. She understood that numbers could be replaced by symbols to calculate more than quantities.
Lady Lovelace expressed on numerous occasions, her longing to become a mathematician. In addition to her contributions to the world of computing, she did studies on the economics of agriculture and even glimpsed the possibility of identifying the arithmetic of the nervous system, something remarkably advanced for the thinking of the time.
Since her death in 1852, a large number of biographies on her have been published, usually bypassing the academic focus of her life. Her enthusiasm for the world of science drew incessant negative criticism centuries after her death. She was criticized over the years by Stein (1985), Bromley (1990), and Collier (1991), who all questioned her “limited mathematical knowledge”. It was not until recently that her legacy began to be truly valued.
In recent years, we have witnessed different movements that have attempted to bridge the gap between women and science. In a world where work automation is a reality, the inclusion of women in science is much more than a desire, it is a necessity.
Stories tell that Mozart’s sister, Maria Anna, was as bright as her brother, even more so. Sadly, she lived in a time of men and the world will remain forever deprived of her greatness. How many Maria Annas could exist in the STEM field? How many findings will remain in the memory of women who were not allowed to fulfill their destiny? Let’s keep saying no to sexism in science and all happily celebrate Ada Lovelace Day!