Monday, 23 March 2009

Ada Lovelace "Week" Kicks Off

Tomorrow, March 24th, is Ada Lovelace Day, a day on the internet and in other media for recognizing the contributions of women excelling in science and technology. The idea is/was that everyone should post to their blog tomorrow about a female scientist, programmer, engineer, &c. -- my problem was that I couldn't decide on just one. So on Vaulting and Vellum this week, each day from today until Friday, I will be posting about a different inspirational woman in science and technology.

Given that I'm essentially making this Ada Lovelace Week here, I figured I had best start with a post on just who Ada Lovelace was, and why a week on women in science should bear her name.

Augusta Ada King, The Right Honourable The Countess of Lovelace, was born 10 December 1815 to Anne Isabella Milbanke and her husband George Gordon Byron, the Sixth Baron Byron (and, yes, the infamous poet Lord Byron). At that time she was called Augusta Ada Byron, and she was the only legitimate child Byron ever sired.

Her parents' marriage soon dissolved, followed by her father's permanent departure from England. Byron died in 1824, never having played a significant role in his daughter's life. It is, however rumoured that her mother's insistence on her instruction in maths and sciences was intended to instill in her a rationality Anne felt Byron sorely lacked.

Ada was introduced to Charles Babbage, the so-called "father of the computer" and inventor of what is commonly held to be the first mechanical computer, in 1833. This was the beginning of a fruitful friendship that resulted in the reason we still remember Ada Lovelace today.

A decade later -- after she had married William King, the Eighth Baron King and (from 1838 on) First Earl of Lovelace (and thus become Ada Lovelace) -- she worked on a translation of notes made by Luigi Menabrea, an Italian mathematician, concerning Babbage's latest machine. This translation was, of course, for her friend Babbage, who was by this point in the habit of calling her "the Enchantress of Numbers." Included with her translation were a series of personal notes, longer, in fact, than the translation itself, in which was included an algebraic method for using Babbage's machine, the Analytical Engine, to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers. I link here to the wikipedia article for Bernoulli numbers, because I have no idea what they are, and can make neither heads nor tails of their description.

What this method amounted to, however, was a series of instructions to be run on the machine; and so in much the same way as we consider the Analytical Engine to have been a precursor to the first computers, we now consider Ada Lovelace's method to be analogous to the first computer program.

In brief, Ada Lovelace is the mother of modern computing, and the very first computer programmer. This is why she this week here bears her name, and this is why she ought to be very dear to all of us on this wonderful series of tubes.

Live and learn.

Tomorrow, I interview an old friend of mine working as a computer programmer in the present day. No Analytical Engines in that post -- sorry steampunk fans -- but there'll be robots, so come back and see!



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can't really tell what the Bernoulli numbers are either.