Fantastic Females in STEM

Augusta Ada Byron

Just over a month ago was the 200th birthday of Ada Lovelace, who was born December 10th, 1815 in London, England.  Hardly any list of important women in STEM is complete without Ada on it.  Ada is considered the first computer programmer, and accomplished much before he died at the young age of 36.

Ada came from famous parentage.  Her father, Lord Byron, and the inspiration behind the phrase “Byronic Hero” was a poet, womanizer, and just as infamous as he was famous.  Ada was his only child not to be born out of wedlock.  Ada obviously did not take after her father and it was instead her mother, Anne Isabella (Annabella) Milbanke who started the flame for Ada’s path into mathematics.  Her mother was well educated, worked towards educating young women and was never afraid of speaking her mind.  Annabella was gifted in logic and mathematics and had a strong intellect; to combat the negative influence of Ada’s father, she made it paramount she was educated in the same way.

Ada was mentored and tutored by Mary Somerville, a mathematician and astronomer we will discuss at a later point.  Through this connection, when she was 17, Ada met and got close to Charles Babbage; the mathematician who created early theoretical mechanical computers, notably the “Difference Engine” and the “Analytical Engine”.  They are theoretical because neither was actually built, much to the chagrin of the British Government, who began funding the machines in hopes of use for government purposes; funding stopped when Babbage abruptly interrupted perfecting the Difference Engine to begin working on the Analytical.

As a child, Ada had always been enamoured with machines and logically it was only a matter of time before Babbage’s work caught her eye as well.  Ada became fascinated by his Analytical Engine and began to work with Babbage, creating the first computer algorithm.  Babbage was so impressed with Ada he gave her the nickname “Enchantress of Numbers”.  Because the computers were not actually built, modern programmers cannot test her code on them, but she is still regarded as the first computer programmer.  Ada wasn’t simply asked to write a program though. An Italian mathematician named Luigi Menabrea had written a piece about the Analytical Engine, based on one of the many lectures Babbage gave while trying to promote and get funding for his inventions. Ada was requested to translate this piece. She went above and beyond though to the extent that her additions were longer than the original article itself!  Lovelace was no stranger to academic writing and was often hailed for it. In this particular instance, due to her intimate knowledge of Babbage’s machines and their intricacies and importance in the foundling “computing world”, her translated article contained detailed information about the differences between them and their functions.  She also included algorithms which would be able to run on the machine, would the machine be built. She wrote more than one but the most significant was one that ran Bernoulli numbers. Previously, mathematical engines required human input and were subject to human error when calculating numbers so this was significant as her algorithms required no constant human input; the machine ran the program on its own. The published Bernoulli algorithm is what is regarded as the first computer program.

Truly ahead of her time, Ada even proposed that the Analytical Engine could go on to perform tasks outside of mathematics—it could be programmed in various methods of artificial intelligence, such as creating music. Her idea was a machine with memory and ability to function on its own by recalling previous instructions; however she did not believe the computer could originate ideas on its own. Her ideas influenced, among others, Alan Turing and his papers on artificial intelligence; he speculated that their resources at the time would not encourage Lovelace to believe in the possibility of AI, rather than simply believing it impossible.

Ada’s influence has lasted much longer than her brief life. Unfortunately Ada’s life was not long, and she died of cancer at the age of 36.  Who knows what else she would have accomplished had she lived longer?

Ada’s accomplishments are incredible in the context of her era.  Women were not generally allowed university education and were discouraged from math and sciences.  Ada was fortunate to be surrounded by strong, smart women and men who encouraged her studies.  Babbage himself was supportive of women in math and science.  There were of course those then and those now that felt she either did not do the work that was published under her name, or doubted she truly had the intelligence that is claimed of her.  However these accusations are unproven and, given the time, it is doubtful she would have published ideas that were not hers, given how being exposed as a fraud would have been majorly detrimental to her cause.  Ada had said that she set out to be a better mathematician than her father was a poet; and it appears she did just that.

We have many things today that honour Ada.  There is the annual Ada Lovelace Day, which is an “international celebration of the achievements of women in science technology, engineering and maths” and aims to “create new roles for girls and women in these male-dominated fields by raising the profile of other women in STEM.”

There is also a computer programming language named Ada in her honour.

There have been and will be many and more other functions, events and organizations named or held in her honour as she continues to inspire and be a role model for women in STEM.  We are fortunate to have her as one of the famous women at the helm of STEM, and hers is an excellent example of pioneering in both a male dominated field as well as in emerging fields of technology.

– Deanna Miller


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