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Ada Lovelace

The Enchantress of Numbers (1815-1852)

Although she lived long before the invention of modern computers, Ada Lovelace can be considered one of the most famous women in the history of Computer Science. Admittedly, Augusta Ada Byron, as she was born in London, did not have a smooth start: her father, the famous poet Lord Byron, left the family even before they could celebrate her first birthday. In order to avoid the 'romantic ideals and moody nature’ of her poetical father to which Ada’s mother ascribed the failure of their marriage, Ada got divulged in - as unusual as it was for that time and place - a rigorous course of Logic and Reason, Mathematics and Science. Nevertheless, it seems that Ada’s comprehension of those courses was greatly influenced by the imagination that she inherited from her father.

As of today, Ada is most famously known for her work on the design of the ‘Analytics Machine’, the first ever general-purpose computer - a design that, by the way, would not be realized until 2002 (and it worked). Starting at the age of 17, it took her little time to prove she was a pioneer, being one of the first to believe that the computer could serve applications beyond pure calculation. Rather, she pondered that any piece of content - music, text, pictures and even sound - could be translated into a digital form, made manipulable by the machine. A pivotal point not only for Ada, but for the entirety of Computer Science occurred in 1843, when she was commissioned to translate an article by Italian engineer Liugi Manebrea and personally augmented it with some notes.

One of these notes addressed how the computer could be programmed in such a way that it could calculate Bernoulli numbers. The note consisted of a list of coding instructions including destination registers, operations and even commentary - indeed, something that would be familiar to any C++ coder today. In retrospect, as it appears, this particular note might have been the first algorithm ever written.

Ada’s contribution to Computer Science is profound, both technically and philosophically. She did not only predict the rise of applications such as iTunes and Netflix 150 years before they were actually realized, she also brought together reason and imagination, that were, before her contributions, polar opposites of each other. Today, her legacy remains visible in every-day life, with the respectable programming language ‘Ada’ still being used around the globe in, e.g., the healthcare and aviation industries. Lastly, one must not forget that her contributions were done at a time and place where her gender was not necessarily contributory to her role as a computer scientist. Each year, therefore, on the second Tuesday of October, Ada Lovelace Day is celebrated, to raise the profile of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), and, at the same time, to create new role models for women in these particular fields.

Ada Lovelace


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