First Computer Geek Was a Woman

Ada Bryon, Countess of Lovelace, 1836, by Margaret Carpenter
Ada Bryon, Countess of Lovelace, 1836, by Margaret Carpenter

My husband sent me this link, to an NPR Story about the first computer. I use the word computer lightly, because it was more of a giant calculator than a computer. But, in the 1840s, video games and facebook were not invented yet, so all you needed a computer for was math.

And that is what Charles Babbage was, a mathematician, who designed an enormous hand-cranked machine called the Difference Machine. He never raised enough money to build it in his life-time. What is left behind are the letters, notes, and papers of Babbage and those involved in the project

The Difference Machine was intended to be used to complete complicated calculations that were often unreliable when done by humans. Like charting navigation routes for ships and figuring out how to split the tip at the restaurant.

Enter Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate daughter of gothic poet Lord Byron.

She understood that numbers didn’t always have to represent numbers. When they stood in for other things, like the alphabet, music, or positions on a chart, you could program them to perform computations. Without this incredible foresight, Charles Babbage would not have been able to put his ideas into writing and create (alas, only on paper) the Difference Machine.

Why is this so amazing? Babbage saw the machine as something that could calculate and perform mathematics. Ada had the vision to the see the machine as something that could compute and perform analytics. In essence, this is the leap between calculating and computing.

Ada’s exhaustive notes for Babbage on the Difference Machine include what is identified as the first algorithm, which is what led to her controversial title “mother of computer programming.” The debate continues today as to what were her original thoughts and what were her “picking-up-where-Babbage-left-off ideas.” One thing that isn’t in dispute: the software language developed and used by the U.S. Department of Defense is named “Ada.”

The NPR Story is a good introduction, but definitely check out BBC Radio Host Melvyn Braggs’ In Our Times piece on Ada. It gives great background on the time, Ada’s biography, and both sides to the argument of her contributions. One of the guest speakers is Doron Swade, an engineer who recreated the Difference Machine in the 1980s based on Babbage’s original notes.

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