I will always be thankful to the computer software engineer I married for introducing me to Ada Lovelace. Due to the male-obsessed viewpoint of history in all my education–high school, college and graduate work–I never learned that the person who invented computer programming and developed an outline for what would become an algorithm was a woman. I guess when you want girls to believe that boys are better at math and science, it would be counterproductive to teach them about Ada.
Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke, who was a mathematician in her own right. During her life Ada managed to combine both of her parents’ first loves in what she called, poetical science. She believed that because she loved both mathematics and poetry this enabled her to make connections, she otherwise wouldn’t have made, which may be the reason why, when she heard Charles Babbage talk of his Difference Engine, Ada was able to leap beyond him to write a programming language for what would become the groundwork for the first computer.
Ada believed that the imagination worked by combining and discovery:
What is Imagination? We talk much of Imagination. We talk of Imagination of Poets, the Imagination of Artists &c; I am inclined to think that in general we don’t know very exactly what we are talking about. Imagination I think especially two fold.
First: it is the Combining Faculty. It brings together things, facts, ideas, conceptions, in new, original, endless, ever varying, Combinations. It seizes points in common, between subjects having no very apparent connexion, & hence seldom or never brought into juxtaposition.
Secondly: It conceives & brings into mental presences that which is far away, or invisible, or which in short does not exist within our physical & conscious cognizance. Hence is it especially the religious faculty; the ground-work of Faith. It is a God-like, a noble faculty. It renders earth tolerable (at least should do so); it teaches us to live, in the tone of the eternal.
Imagination is the Discovering Faculty, pre-eminently. It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science. It is that which feels & discovers what is, the real which we see not, which exists not for our senses. Those who have learned to walk on the threshold of the unknown worlds, by means of what are commonly termed par excellence the exact sciences, may then with the fair white wings of Imagination hope to soar further into the unexplored amidst which we live.
This imagination allowed Ada to see that Babbage’s machine could handle far more than numbers and mathematical calculations. She believed the numbers could stand in for anything and be used musically, symbolically and in other artistic notations. According to Walter Isaacson in his book The Innovators:
The reality is that Ada’s contribution was both profound and inspirational. More than Babbage or any other person of her era, she was able to glimpse a future in which machines would become partners of the human imagination, together weaving tapestries as beautiful as those from Jacquard’s loom. Her appreciation for poetical science led her to celebrate a proposed calculating machine that was dismissed by the scientific establishment of her day, and she perceived how the processing power of such a device could be used on any form of information. Thus did Ada, Countess of Lovelace, help sow the seeds for a digital age that would blossom a hundred years later.
Unfortunately Ada would die young, as her celebrated father did, at the age of 36 from uterine cancer. And although she had never met him in her life (he died when she was eight years old), she was buried next to him.
But her legacy lives on every time we turn on our desktop computers and open our laptops. I think Watson would make her very happy, and Watson is here because of the work she started.
To learn more about Ada Lovelace go to Maria Popova’s labor of love: Brain Pickings. The following posts about Ada were the inspiration for this post: