Steve Wozniak. Bill Gates. Mark Zuckerberg. All modern-day tech gurus who’ve transformed how we access, process and share information. But have you heard of the first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron (yes, that Lord Byron)? She may not have coded the latest social app or programmed an impregnable cybersecurity firewall, but Wozniak, Gates and Zuckerberg can thank her for teeing up the foundation of their successes.
Augusta “Ada” Lovelace (1815-1852) was a trailblazing British mathematician who is credited with creating the first computer-programming language, back when computers were just mechanical number-crunching machines. Unlike most young women of her time, she was enamored with the STEM subjects before STEM—which stands for science, technology, engineering and math—was even a term.
Then again, considering who her parents were, maybe that’s not so weird. Lovelace’s inclination toward, and eventual success in, math was due in large part to the influence of her parents—Lord Byron, a flamboyant, erratic poet and politician, and Lady Annabella Byron, or the “Princess of Parallelograms,” as her husband called her, in a wink to her own math prowess.
In an effort to keep her daughter grounded in the practical fields of math and science (and maybe hoping she would avoid her father’s scandalous example), Lady Byron hired an array of tutors for Lovelace when she was just 4 years old, who instilled in her a love of learning. The method worked. Lovelace became entranced with her studies and ran with the right crowd: When she was 17, she met Charles Babbage, the “father of the computer.”
During her mentorship with Babbage, Lovelace truly began to shine, though she wouldn’t be recognized for her genius until nearly a century later.
Under Babbage’s tutelage, she devised what many people consider to be the first algorithm carried out by a machine. It was a code to program Babbage’s own creation, the Analytical Engine (or, computer), that could calculate Bernoulli numbers, which are vital in number theory and analysis.
Though Babbage considered his machine suited only for calculating numbers, Lovelace was a step ahead. She envisioned a total upgrade that has laid the foundation for today’s online world—a machine capable of translating pictures, text and music to digital form.
Incredibly, she thought of these ideas in the pre-electric era, decades before Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse pioneered power generation at the scale that makes today’s plugged-in world possible. In fact, the other present-day machine Lovelace contributed to is the largest machine ever built: the U.S. power grid and the complex programming and infrastructure it takes to power the country.
She finally received due recognition posthumously, when the book “Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines,” originally published in 1843, was republished in the 1950s. It included her work and introduced her to a 20th century world with little knowledge of who she was. With the time now ripe for broader comprehension and application of her ideas, Lovelace became lauded as a software innovator in her own right.
So, in the 1970s, when it was time to streamline the various U.S. military computer programs into one comprehensive language, the Pentagon chose a name synonymous with reliability, ingenuity and robustness: “Ada.” Chances are, if you work in real-time operations in aviation, energy, health care, finance, transportation or even space, you use it every day.
History Channel, “10 things you may not know about Ada Lovelace”