An Englishman named Charles Babbage created the first design for a general-purpose programmable digital computer, which he called an “analytical engine,” in 1834. He never finished building it (the full machine would have been huge), but at a party he described the project to a young mathematician who was the daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron and the wife of the Earl of Lovelace.
She was Lord Byron’s only child born in wedlock, but her parents divorced when she was still very young. Her mother, believing Byron mad, sought to save her daughter from any hereditary tendency in that direction by having her educated in mathematics from an early age, something unusual for girls.
Ada Lovelace was fascinated with Babbage’s idea and for years the two of them carried on an extensive correspondence. When an Italian published on article in French about the proposed analytical engine, it was Byron’s daughter who not only translated it into English but added her own extensive notes, longer than the article itself, to explain the invention more clearly and give examples of how it could be programmed to do useful and important computations. These were the first computer programs ever published.
Tragically, 163 years ago today, 1852 November 27, Ada Lovelace died just under two weeks short of her 37th birthday.
Thirteen days from now, December 10, will be the 200th anniversary of her birth.
The following video shows her resting place and tells a little of her life and importance.
As the video suggests, her position in the aristocracy helped Ada Lovelace achieve things, such as studying mathematics, that were out of bounds for most women of her time, but it’s possible that her gender, as well as her early death, prevented what she wrote about the analytics engine from being taken more seriously. Babbage’s own writings were more descriptive and did not so clearly lay out why a programmable computers would be an important advance. Had the possibilities been more fully grasped at the time, it’s possible others would have contributed to the development of Babbage’s invention, as some alternate-history steampunk science fiction has suggested.
Here’s another video about Babbage’s analytical engine:
Finally, a note in passing to anyone who might think that Ada Lovelace’s short lifespan was typical for her era: It was not. The misconception that it was comes from a misinterpretation of the fact that life expectancy at the time was probably around 40 (estimates differ). But “life expectancy” simply means the average age of death, and in the mid-19th century vast numbers died in infancy and childhood, bringing down that average. The single biggest factors increasing life expectancy are improved sanitation, pediatric medical care, and especially early vaccination. The greatest reduction in mortality has been for those under the age of five. All these developments, plus a reduction in violence and fewer deaths of women in childbirth, have benefited adults as well, but less dramatically. Remember that even the 90th Psalm speaks of a typical lifespan (at least for those not struck down early in life) as 70 or 80 years.
I’ve touched on misconceptions about life expectancy in previous posts, but this page by Geoff Canyon has one of the better succinct explanations I’ve yet run across, and here’s another good one that mentions the long lives of many historical figures of the 18th and 19th centuries. Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere, and Ben Franklin all lived into their 80s, for example, and John Adams died at the age of 90.