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Ada Lovelace: The Mother of Computer Programming

This profile on Ada Lovelace is the eighth post in a month-long series of profiles about female STEM innovators in honor of Women’s History Month. Check back each weekday to read a new profile. 

Ada Lovelace was born into a historically famous family. She could have lived well through her father’s fame and her mother’s money-instead she decided to write a computational algorithm, earning her the title of the mother of programming, and became the first computer programmer in the mid-1800s1,2

Only a few weeks after Lovelace was born, her father, the prolific poet Lord Byron, left her and her mother, Lady Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron1. While Lord Byron continued galavanting around Europe, Lady Anne was raising Lovelace to become an independent modern woman1. Lady Anne hired renowned tutors to teach her daughter about math, science, societal structure, medical practices, and astronomy1,2. Lovelace’s mother hoped these intense studies would save her daughter from developing the moody and unpredictable nature of her father1,2. Lovelace showed interest in every subject. First, she was incredibly interested in flying and after watching birds, she created a guide called Flyology with her own illustrations2. Later in life, she became interested in the opposite dispositions of her parents and wrote about the imagination and its relationship with pragmatism2. But, her most influential writing in 1833, when she attended a party for socialites and met her next tutor2

This tutor, Charles Babbage, captivated Lovelace’s attention. The two became fast friends and Babbage, known as the father of computers, showed Lovelace his plans for an analytical engine which was designed to calculate more complex equations than his first computational machine2. Due to their close mentor-mentee relationship, Lovelace was tasked with translating an article written on the works of Babbage from French to English.  

Lovelace completed this task, but more importantly, she added her own notes to the translation which nearly quadrupled the size of the article1. These notes included methods on how codes could be used to communicate with a machine to produce meaningful characters, such as letters and numbers, and steps to create a looping process, which programmers continue to use today2

“The science of operations, as derived from mathematics more especially, is a science of itself, and has its own abstract truth and value,” Lovelace herself wrote and James Essinger interpreted as Ada "seeking to do nothing less than invent the science of computing, and separate it from the science of mathematics. What she calls ‘the science of operations’ is indeed in effect computing2.” 

After this publication, Lovelace tried to create other computational systems to predict gambling, but none were as successful as her notes on Babbage’s work which were underappreciated in her time1,2. In addition to the many posthumous awards bestowed upon Lovelace, the U.S. Department of Defense named a software language Ada, in her honor1

According to a New York Times article: “Computer programming has so many interactions with the rest of the world.” While Babbage possessed technical ingenuity, Aurora said, Lovelace propelled his invention into the nascent days of computing: “She was the first person to see the true potential.” For this, Babbage called her “Lady Fairy.2” 

References: 

  1. Biography. (2020, February 24). Ada Lovelace Biography. Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/scholar/ada-lovelace

  1. The New Yorker. (2013, October 15). Ada Lovelace, the First Tech Visionary. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/ada-lovelace-the-first-tech-visionary