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Ada Lovelace Was the First Person to Understand the Real Potential of Computers

The Victorian mathematician's legacy goes beyond the first published computer program.

Ada Lovelace's legacy is as contentious, perhaps, as her life as a female mathematician in the 1800s was colourful. She's widely considered the "first computer programmer," an accolade that has led to some critics viciously nitpicking over her exact role in devising the algorithm published under her name, but that debate misses the point of her true legacy: Lovelace was the first to recognise the real potential of computers.

Lovelace is known for her work with mathematician and engineer Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, a machine that was never completed but is now recognised as a forerunner to modern-day computers.

"The more fundamental leap that she made is that she understood that the Analytical Engine could do more than calculate numbers," explained Suw Charman-Anderson, founder of Ada Lovelace Day, which celebrates women in technology and science on October 13. "She understood that if you could break something like music or art down into rules, that you could then use symbolic logic to program the analytical engine to create graphics or music. That was something no one else at the time understood."

Trial model of the Analytical Engine, 1871 (the actual machine was never completed). Image: Science Museum/SSPL

Lovelace, who had a close working relationship with Babbage, included the first computer program in her notes when she translated a transcript of one of his lectures. It was a description for an algorithm to compute Bernoulli numbers (a number sequence discovered by mathematicians in the 18th century) using the Analytical Engine. Information would be input into the machine using punched cards similar to those used by mechanical looms, and it could crunch calculations beyond Babbage's earlier "difference engine."

Lovelace essentially envisioned what computers were capable of before computers really existed.

Lovelace's work is honoured with a new exhibition at London's Science Museum, curated by Tilly Blyth and Katherine Platt, which explores her story through her own letters and notes and with the help of prototypes and models of Babbage's machines.

"Charles Babbage had already written, effectively, a program for the Analytical Engine in some of his scribbling books," Platt explained of the collaboration. "But Ada decided that she wanted to include a program for the Bernoulli numbers in her notes on the Analytical Engine; that was her idea."

"I think the more general philosophical view of the Analytical Engine was very much down to Ada," she continued. "It was her thinking of the potential of the machine that was a really very unique contribution."

Lovelace essentially envisioned what computers were capable of before computers really existed.

Punched cards for the Analytical Engine, c. 1870. Image: Science Museum/SSPL

It was naturally unusual for women to pursue careers in science and tech in the Victorian era, but Lovelace's privileged position in society gave her opportunities beyond the norm. The daughter of the "mad, bad, and dangerous to know" British poet Lord Byron, her life was probably never going to be boring. It was her mother, however, the intellect Annabella Milbanke, who gave her an education in science and mathematics, and introduced her to pioneers in these fields such as Charles Babbage.

Some of Lovelace's letters in the new exhibition show her commitment to science and maths, not to mention her ambitious personality. One reveals her writing to influential scientist Michael Faraday, who declined her invitation to work together. She was unabashed about her talents, writing that she possessed "faculties that usually do not co-exist. The deepest Analysis, with brilliant Imagination for ever playing on the surface of those grave & fathomless depths."

"She took her work—particularly on the Analytical Engine with Charles Babbage—really quite seriously," said Platt. "She saw the work she was doing, her mathematics, as part of the beginning of a career in science and mathematics."

Inside the Ada Lovelace exhibition. Image: Science Museum

Lovelace died in 1852 at the age of 36, that potential career sadly cut short. This year marks what would have been her 200th birthday, with many events scheduled to champion the contribution to science and tech of women past and present. Charman-Anderson said she started the Ada Lovelace Day initiative after getting frustrated at the lack of women speakers at tech conferences, and chose the mathematician as its figurehead because "she just seemed to really embody the challenges that women in tech face."

This ongoing sexism in the science and tech sphere is perhaps echoed in the controversy that dogs Lovelace's role in the history of computer programming. Charman-Anderson put the debate down to a misconception of how collaboration works, but also noted that people don't seem so eager to pull apart the authorship of works penned by male science and tech pioneers.

"In the male sphere, if you're first to publish, you did it; you invented it," she said. "Apparently if you're a woman, if you're the first to publish, someone else did it first."