The Mother of Programming: Ada Lovelace

For ten years, my idea of a computer programmer was a nerdy man. Why? Because I work for an ecommerce solution company and until a few years ago, the only programmers we had were men. Sadly, this is the norm in the tech field; and it shouldn’t be that way because women were the pioneers in computer programming and that fact is often never noticed or recognized. So, in honor of those women who broke the ground for future female programmers, I thought I would offer a little history lesson.

The mother of women in programming is Augusta Ada, Countess of Lovelace, the daughter of poet Lord Byron. The computer language ADA was named after her in recognition of her pioneering work with mathematician, Charles Babbage.

Early Start in STEM.

Ada’s mother, Lady Byron, was a mathematician, affectionately referred to as the “Princess of Parallelograms” by her husband. Lady Byron believed a solid education based on logic and reason would spare her daughter from romantic ideals and moody dispositions, something her father became known for throughout history. From age four, Ada received tutoring in science, and mathematics, an unusual  course of study for a woman in 19th-century England.

A Flying Machine

At 12, Ada developed a passionate interest in flying creatures. She was often found studying and documenting the anatomy of birds. From her research, she illustrated the construction of a winged machine. Moreover, she conceptualized what powered flight might look like. In a letter Ada sent to her mother, she proposed the creation of a thing in the form of a horse with a steam engine inside to power an immense pair of wings on the outside of the horse. The engine would power the wings and allow the horse to be lifted in the air with a person sitting on its back. When Ada combined her mathematical logic with her imagination, nothing was impossible.

The First Computer Program

Lovelace met Babbage when she was 17 in London.  He showed her plans for a machine that he believed would be able to do complex mathematical calculations. His machine called the Difference Engine, earned him the nickname “father of computing”. He asked Lovelace to write about his work for a scholarly journal. She immediately agreed. In her article, Lovelace proposed a vision for his machine that went beyond calculations. In the years that followed, Ada, Babbage, and a military engineer named

Luigi Menabrea, collaborated closely to improve working theory on the machine. In 1943, Ada was able to publish her own paper on the Engine, detailing how the machine could be programmed with code to calculate complex formulas. The first algorithm ever carried out by a machine, and computer programming, were born.

More Than Numbers

Babbage thought his machine was limited to numerical calculations. Ada saw much more. She saw a future in which a multi-purpose modern computer could manipulate any piece of content that could be translated into digital form – music, sound, text and pictures. B.V. Bowden’s 1953 book “Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines,” highlighted Ada’s notes where she wrote, that the engine “might act upon other things besides numbers, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations…”. In other words, computers could paint pictures, compose melodies, manipulate sound and communicate. Technology caught up to this vision only a century later.

Ada: Military Programing Language

In 1979, the U.S. Department of Defense developed a computer programming language designed to override and supersede the hundreds of different programming languages in use by the military. This language is still in use today, operating real-time systems in finance, healthcare, transportation, aviation and space industries. When time came to give this programming language a name, U.S. Navy Commander Jack Cooper suggested Ada. Ada was unanimously approved in honor the unconventional woman who forever changed computing. Her legacy lives on as Ada is still used around the world today in the operation of real-time systems in the aviation, health care, transportation, financial, infrastructure and space industries.

Ada’s Importance Today

Although Ada’s contributions to computing weren’t recognized until a century after her death, her ideas about computing were so far ahead of their time that it took nearly a century for technology to catch up. More than 160 years later, we remember her contributions to science and engineering in the celebration of Ada Lovelace Day on October 13.  The day is truly a celebration of what women can be and will be with role models in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.


B.V. Bowden ( ed.) Faster Than Thought ( A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines ) Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons Ltd. 1953

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