Meet Ada Lovelace, glorious godmother of the digital age

When you think about the first computer programmer, the image that pops into your brain might be of a mid-century dude with a pocket protector, a garage, and a dream. But Walter Isaacson’s new bookThe innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Age asserts that the first computer programmer was, in fact, a woman.

Her name was Ada Lovelace, the daughter of the legendary hedonist poet Lord Byron, a dude who one of his former lovers called “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Lovelace’s mother, Lady Byron, wanted her daughter to take a different path from her father, and so tutored her in mathematics and science, avoiding poetry altogether. She was privately schooled in the field by many prominent scientists, including the researcher Mary Somerville and logician Augustus de Morgan.

Lovelace showed real talent for math, and described her approach to the field as “poetical science.” She often drew upon metaphors and imagery to explain scientific concepts. And when she was 17, her tutor Mary Somerville introduced her to Charles Babbage, who was working on a prototype for his Analytical Engine, an automatic mechanical calculator that was one of the predecessors to electronic computers.

Lovelace automatically saw possibilities for the machine beyond what Babbage envisioned. She wrote a scholarly article about the engine that saw potential in the device far beyond just calculations. Music, for instance, could also be programmed through the device. Lovelace wrote:

That’s right: A woman in 1833 basically thought up Garage Band. Though the machine was never actually made successfully, Lovelace counts among the very first thinkers who understood the potential of computational power. So you can mention that the next time someone talks about women not understanding technology.

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