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Ada Lovelace Day: Celebrating the achievements of the first computer programmer in history

Oct 12, 2021

Author: Nyah Graham, VCU history student

Could you imagine computer programming before the modern computer? Professor Karen Rader lends her perspective on the life of Ada Lovelace and the celebration of women in STEM throughout history. panel one - karen rader / panel two - ada lovelace [View Image]

October 12th marks Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of celebration of women’s achievements in STEM. Ada Lovelace is considered to be the first computer programmer in history. The ideas she penned transcended that of her mentor, and she imagined a system which wouldn’t be realized for another century. To gain more perspective, I spoke with history professor Karen Rader, Ph.D., about the significance of Lovelace’s achievements and the recognition of women's achievements.

Rader says “Historians Lance Day and Ian McNeil have suggested that Lovelace and her contribution to the protocomputer become understandable first through knowing her childhood experiences: as the aristocratic daughter of Lord G.G. Byron, she built boats at age eight and was fascinated by industrial machinery. Anna I.N. Byron, Lovelace’s mother, also loved geometry, and taught Ada math – an unusual course of study for any woman in 19th-century England – in order to ground her in logic and reason, thus making her as unlike her famously quixotic poet-father.”

Lovelace’s work began at the age of 17, and even with her young age, her skill was seen as a wonder. Her mentor, mathematician Charles Babbage, praised her abilities calling her the “Enchantress of Number.” Rader explains “She watched him demonstrate a model portion of his difference engine, doing mathematical calculations -- she was –as they say -- ‘hooked on science.’ She put her education to use, translating articles by an Italian military engineer about the difference engine’s usage and augmenting it with her notes – these were three times as long as the paper itself. This was published in the Scientific Memoirs (an English journal) under only her initials (A.A.L) because the journal didn’t publish articles by women.” These notes would include her work in Note G – the first computer algorithm.

In the late 1900’s, some claimed Babbage was the brain behind her work. As a result, the public education’s history of computing usually starts with Alan Turing, whose work was crucial to the Allies in World War II. Lovelace’s thoughts on how characters could be computed with a sequence at all, predates Turing by over 90 years. When asked about her thoughts on this Rader said “Historian Margaret Rossiter named this phenomena “The Matilda effect” – it’s a demonstrated bias against acknowledging the achievements of those women scientists whose work is attributed to their male colleagues.” She continues, “So how many potentially brilliant scientists and engineers have we lost to the long-time damaging effects of bias, from the classroom to the benchtop? How many discoveries and applications of science and technology have been missed or twisted to serve biased ends? Women still face the hurdle of being properly credited. But the problem described is really intersectional – not just about gender, but race and class and ethnicity. As late as 2015, Black and Latina women science graduate students reported being mistaken for janitorial staff when they stayed late to monitor their experiments in their labs.”

Lovelace, like so many other women, had a passion for math and science. Her place in history shouldn’t be condensed, nor should any woman’s simply on the basis of gender. Rader's advice for women and girls entering this field is to “Read history of science and technology and the first-hand accounts written by past women scientists and engineers and use these stories to formulate questions for your mentors and classmates, like: these are some experiences I know happened -- did they happen to you? How did you navigate this? This will give you some concrete strategies to use when you face such things.”

In commemoration of Ada Lovelace, the Finding Ada Network does hold a day of webinars and events. You can visit them at FindingAda.com for more details. We hope everyone can take this day to celebrate the lives and achievements of these women, even those lost in the pages of history, despite their dedication and brilliant work.

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