On this day over 200 years ago the first programmer, Ada Lovelace, was born

Key Takeaways

  • Ada Lovelace recognized the potential of computers beyond number crunching and is considered one of the first programmers.
  • Some dispute that she was the first computer programmer but agree that she was the first to see computers as capable of more than just crunching numbers.
  • Lovelace’s influence can still be seen today in tributes and acknowledgments in the computing industry.

When we use computers, they’re more than just number-crunching devices, but that’s all they used to be known for when they were first conceived. Ada Lovelace changed all of that. She’s considered to be one of the world’s first programmers because she was the first to see that the Analytical Engine, a proposed mechanical general-purpose computer by Charles Babbage, could be used for applications that went beyond number crunching.

The history of programming is said to start with Ada

Lovelace, an English mathematician and writer, was born on Dec. 10, 1815. She began working with Charles Babbage, often referred to as the “father of computers,” at the age of 18 after meeting him through a private tutor. They quickly cultivated a working relationship and friendship, building up a series of notes about Babbage’s Analytical Engine. These notes, put together alongside a translation of an article about it in Italian, contained an algorithm in the seventh note — called “Note G” — that many deem to be the first computer program ever written. It was a way to compute Bernoulli numbers.

Some historians dispute that Lovelace was the first computer programmer outright. In contrast, others dispute it but acknowledge that Lovelace was the first to recognize the computer as being capable of more than just number computation.

Diagram of Lovelace’s algorithm with the Analytical Engine.

For example, Steven Wolfram, the founder of Wolfram Alpha, says of Lovelace in his book Idea Makers that “There’s nothing as sophisticated — or as clean — as Ada’s computation of the Bernoulli numbers. Babbage certainly helped and commented on Ada’s work, but she was definitely the driver of it.” No matter what her contribution exactly was, it’s clear that she was an important and influential figure in the making of modern computing in some way.

Her influence lives on in our computer-centric future

Lovelace later passed away at the age of just 36, merely 10 years after writing those notes. Her vision of computers being able to do more than just deal with numbers has obviously surpassed the vision that other scientists and even Babbage himself had since, and her algorithm explained in great detail how it could have calculated a sequence of Bernoulli numbers, which may have run correctly if the machine had ever been built.

Since then, we’ve seen tributes to Lovelace in different computing contexts. Ada Lovelace was used as the name of Nvidia’s architecture in the 4000 series, and the cryptocurrency Cardano named its currency after her, with a Lovelace being the smallest sub-unit of an Ada. Even if we don’t name computer components after her, her influence will live on for decades to come.

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