The first computer programmer – Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace

07 Jun

From translating inspiration and ideas into words and images perhaps we now need to consider the communication and sharing of ideas via technological innovation. In the “Noughties” we have so many ways to communicate with each other. But we mustn’t forget that the 24/7 space that never sleeps “ http://www.” “Web” wasn’t created until 1989 (by the Englishman Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the Belgian Robert Cailliau) and it wasn’t until the early 1990s, that mobile phones became small enough to carry in your pocket,

Women have played a major historical part in providing the technological platforms that are ubiquitous in the 21st century. Their stories will be the subject of the next series of posts.

Women in computing

With the advent of the information age, concerns specific to the present and future role of women in computing have gained increasing importance. These concerns can be seen to be motivated by a general concern for gender equality on the one hand, as computers gain increasing influence in society, and as a reflection on information technology on the other, and on perceived sexism therein.”

From Wikipedia:

Notwithstanding the ‘perceived sexism’ there is no doubt that computers and communication technology have influenced history

Ada Lovelace from Wikipedia

Ada Lovelace

and will shape the future. The following pages give a brief glimpse into the stories of the women who helped to formulate the ideas behind the technology and were instrumental in providing the programmes and platforms for creating interactive media content.

Our next story is about Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, December 10, 1815 to November 27, 1852

The first computer programmer – Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (born Ada Byron – only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron and his wife, Anne Isabella Milbanke). Ada Lovelace’s notes helped to define Charles Babbage’s analytical engine as the first computer and her corrections to the calculation of Bernoulli numbers, as the first computer programme.

The analytical engine was not a single physical machine but a succession of designs that Charles Babbage had tinkered with until his death in 1871. The Analytical Engine could be programmed using punch cards, an idea unheard of in his time. This machine was also intended to employ several features subsequently used in modern computers, including sequential control, branching, and looping

Ada Lovelace, knew and was taught by Mary Somerville a Scottish science writer and polymath. [You can read more about Mary Somerville in the Science Section of this blog]. Mary introduced Ada to Charles Babbage in June 1833. It was at this time that Ada took a great interest in Charles Babbage’s work.

Luigi Menabrea was an Italian mathematician who, in 1842, included in his memoirs a description of Charles Babbage’s analytical engine. Babbage and Menabrea had met whilst Babbage was travelling in Italy.

During a 9-month period in 1843 Ada Lovelace translated Menabrea’s description from his memoirs. However, she didn’t just translate the text, she wrote extensive additional notes and also included, among other amendments and annotations, a very important correction for using Babbage’s engine to calculate Bernoulli numbers. [Bernoulli numbers are a sequence of rational numbers with deep connections in number theory].

Total operations for computing every number in succession, from B1 to B2n-1 inclusive

This methodology was widely recognised by historians as the first computer programme and as a result of this work, Ada has been described as the first computer programmer, The modern computer programming language, Ada, was named in her honour.

The Ada Lovelace Award is named in honor of the first computer programmer, Augusta Ada Byron Lovelace, whose writings developed the idea of programming and explained the operation and theory of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine.

Biographers have debated the extent of her original contributions. Some state that the programmes were written by Babbage himself. Babbage commented the following on the subject, in his Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1846).

I then suggested that she add some notes to Menabrea’s memoir, an idea which was immediately adopted. We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced: I suggested several but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process.”

Lovelace’s prose also acknowledged some possibilities of the machine which Babbage never published, such as speculating that “the Engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”

Full details of Menabrea’s Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with notes upon the Memoir by the Translator ADA AUGUSTA, COUNTESS OF LOVELACE can be viewed at “Sketch of The Analytical Engine”

Invented by Charles Babbage” By L. F. MENABREA of Turin, Officer of the Military Engineers.

Notations and Variables from Note D of the notes by the Translator,

Ada Augusta, Countess of Lovelace

In 1953, over one hundred years after her death, Ada Lovelace’s forgotten translation and annotations on Babbage’s Analytical Engine were republished. The engine now has been recognized as a model for a computer and Ada Lovelace’s notes as a description of a computer and software.


If Augusta Ada Lovelace’s notes are recognised as one of the first descriptions of a computer and software our next set of historical stories involves 6 ladies who did most of the programming of ENIAC by manipulating its switches and cables. These ladies job titles became known as ‘computers‘. The ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) was the first large-scale, reprogrammable, electronic, digital computer. Its first programs were related to the design of the hydrogen bomb. It is during World War II where we will meet our next historical pioneers, the original programmers of the ENIAC , Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas and Ruth Lichterman.

Legal bit
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the authors. Although great care has been taken to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the information contained in this work neither the author, contributors, employees or advisers are able to accept any legal liability for any consequential loss or damage, however caused, arising as a result of any actions taken on the basis of the information contained in this work. All third-party brands and trademarks belong to their respective owners. Copyright : Maggie Baldry


Posted by on June 7, 2011 in Soft Footsteps


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2 responses to “The first computer programmer – Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace

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