Women in IT - The Story of Ada Lovelace

Series: Women in IT

Every year on 26 August is Women's Equality Day. It originates in the USA and celebrates cross-gender suffrage and diversity.
Ada Lovelace is now considered the first female programmer and intellectual founder of information technology. Her understanding of the underlying concepts of computers was far ahead of her time.
Her memory is honoured with a programming language, an award, a cryptocurrency and many other media.

The Women's Equality Day

The Silent Sentinels, a women's rights group from the United States, fought for equal voting rights between the sexes in 1917. At the time, the group protested in front of the White House for 18 months before the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution approved women's right to vote on 26 August 1920. The event 101 years ago was a big step towards equality for women.
Diversity is important to us - in general and in IT. Having already told you about Grace Hopper, today we introduce you to another very important woman for IT - Ada Lovelace.

Who was Ada Lovelace?

Ada was born in England in 1815, the daughter of the eminent poet Lord Byron.

Despite the fact that women were largely denied access to public education, she received a comprehensive private education in mathematics, science and music at her mother's suggestion.

Today, she is considered the first female programmer ever, because her ideas are the basis for the development of information technology. Together with Charles Babbage and his Analytical Engine, she laid the foundation for algorithms and modern computers.

Ada Lovelace
The academic path and achievements of Ada Lovelace

Despite poor educational opportunities for girls and women, Lovelace spent a lot of time studying new inventions and technical diagrams on her own. The idea of being able to fly fascinated her, as did the desire to describe the brain mathematically. She showed interest in mathematics and the natural sciences and demonstrated ambition in balancing social and family obligations on the one hand and her urge to research on the other.

At the time, many female scientists relied on the help of men to circumvent restrictions on access to academic content. Lovelace married Baron William King in 1835, who had himself admitted to the Royal Society on her behalf in order to gain access to libraries and universities where he transcribed articles for his wife.

In the course of her mathematical studies, Lovelace met Mary Somerville and Charles Babbage. After many years of scientific correspondence, she became Babbage's collaborator. The Analytical Engine, a predecessor of the modern computer, was the subject of their collaboration. In 1842, Babbage gave a lecture on his invention. On the basis of this, Luigi Menabrea prepared a description in French, which Lovelace translated into English and comprehensively supplemented with her own notes. These "notes" were about twice as long as the article itself and formulated the basic ideas of programming. They were conceptually far ahead of the current state of research. She presented her Notes with a written plan for calculating Bernoulli numbers in diagram form, which can be considered the first published formal programme.

The Analytical Engine - far ahead of its time

Babbage actually only wanted to build a mechanical calculating machine to solve polynomial functions. But he realised that a more general machine based on his ideas was possible and rethought.

The result was the Analytical Engine. It was to consist of 55,000 parts. The machine would have had a total length of 19 metres and a height of 3 metres. The machine would have been able to output its results via a printer, curve plotter or a bell and punch numbers either into punched cards or metal plates. It was to have mastered the four basic arithmetic operations and, depending on the design, would have been able to hold 100 - 1,000 numbers with 40-50 decimal places in a kind of working memory.

The machine was not built during Babbage's lifetime, partly because the design was too small for the times, and partly because the British Parliament refused to fund it after the predecessor had already been financed. Comparable computers were therefore not built and tested until about a century later. It is now known that the design was correct and that the analytical engine would have worked.

Ada Lovelace and the invention of programming

While Babbage only wanted to make a calculating machine, Lovelace recognised the innovative potential behind his idea. She understood that the machine could be used to do more than just process numbers. In doing so, she formulated one of the basic ideas of computer science - the systematic processing of information.

Lovelace noted the necessary distinction between the physical part of the machine (copper wheels, punched cards, etc.) and the conceptual part, i.e. the option of automatic calculations. This was the first time she described the separation between hardware and software.

She explained that a machine can follow an analysis but cannot check ratios and truths, thus cannot have its own mind and insights. Alan Turing spoke out against this statement about a hundred years later in his article Computing Machinery and Intelligence. Both Lovelace and Turing's theses are still the subject of much debate in computer science and philosophy today.

Incidentally, critics such as Charles Babbage scholar Doron Swade argue that Lovelace should not be considered the first programmer because Babbage designed the machine. His personal notes already contained programmes for the machine 6-7 years before Lovelace's notes. However, Swade also points out that Lovelace's original understanding of the capabilities and potentials of the computer represent a far more significant contribution than mere invention.

What remains of Ada Lovelace?

Lovelace's legacy is fundamental - despite being forgotten for a time. In retrospect, however, Lovelace has been extensively honoured - for example, by the Ada programming language named after her and the Ada Lovelace Award presented by the Association of Women in Computing. There are also initiatives for more women in tech fields that bear her name and several books, websites, a film and the cryptocurrency "Ada". Ada Lovelace Day is held every year in mid-October to honour women and their work in science, technology and mathematics.

Concluding thoughts

In his essay "How Programming Became a Male Domain", American historian Nathan Ensmenger writes: "Programming was initially thought of as a job for low-status office workers - that is, women. The discipline was only gradually consciously transformed into a high-status, scientific, male subject". Today, programming is seen more and more as a male-only field - even though Lovelace's ideas were the basis of modern computer science and women pioneered information technology. We think software programming needs to be made more accessible to women again - not least by telling their stories.

Further information

You can find more information and exciting facts about Lovelace's life here:

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