Ladies first: programming before computers

Contrary to popular belief that the world first, begrudgingly, accepted that you can in fact mix with women with computer sciences in the 1995 film Hackers, in the 19th Century Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, had long before Angelina Jolie or the hoards of male computer nerds claimed the (dubious?) honour of being the first ever programmer.

Ada got her pretty fantastic surname, Lovelace, through marriage, being born Ada Byron after her rockstar-poet father Lord Byron. While Ada Lovelace’s mother separated from the undoubtedly STI ridden Lord Byron early in Ada’s life, she attempted to distance young Lovelace from the evils of poetry, pushing instead the study of science and mathematics (echoing modern university budget allocations: sadly sciences triumphs over humanities).

Ada Lovelace can be called the first programmer through her collaboration with fellow mathematician and engineer Charles Babbage on his invention, the Analytical Engine. This device was essentially a mechanical precursor to today’s computers that could solve algebraic equations through rotating gears and cylinders (which doesn’t seem too dissimilar to the series of tubes that form the modern internet). Lovelace worked with Babbage by translating and expanding upon Italian engineer L. F. Menabrea’s summary of Babbage’s work and through constant correspondence with Babbage himself. As for her work on the Analytical Engine, in order for the Engine to function it required punch cards to be inserted, which would read by the machine and it would spit out mathematical solutions, requiring an estimated over 20 thousand cards. In letters to Babbage, Lovelace detailed how some of these cards might be used to solve popular mathematic number sequences and problems through notes and diagrams which today are recognised as the first conceptual creation of a computer program. This is pretty amazing as she basically created a whole field of science and engineering and even conceived of modern programming classics such as subroutines and loop functions (which I TOTALLY know what that all means…).

The Analytical Engine was never built and Charles Babbage continued its development after Ada Lovelace died in 1852. Upon examination of Lovelace’s own notes on the possibilities of Analytical Engine, I find her ideas to be at once both prescient and also haunting. Lovelace and Babbage full well recognised the Analytical Engine as an enormous development of human progress, the importance of which would only explode across the face of humanity over a hundred years later. Lovelace believed that science was the only way for humans to fully understand nature and that the Analytical Engine would create a new language and means to unite all of the sciences, and looking at computers today, they permeate every facet of our lives in ways that do stretch across everything. It is interesting then, and somewhat melancholic, the manner in which Ada Lovelace describes the intellectual limits of these “thinking and reasoning” machines (from Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Baggage), restricting their capacity for knowledge and development to that of human beings. This thought strikes me today as somewhat sad, because I have grown up watching Data, Astro Boy, the Iron Giant, Baymax, Chappie (probably), and so on; these mechanical, robotic, computer-beings trying to become more than what their programs allow. Yet their great-great-great-grandmother essentially shackles computer agency, growth and freedom as less than human. As the reality of artificial intelligence has moved beyond simple science-fiction musings, for some reason Lovelace’s firm belief in computer limitations leaves me somewhat maudlin.

(This may be an unfair conclusion to draw from Ada Lovelace speculating upon a science in its earliest infancy, however as we seem on the cusp of this possibility it is a connection my brain seems to make. Furthermore, with the leaps and bounds being made in sex-bot technology today that will undoubtedly continue in the next decades, maybe it is good for now that they are not self aware.)

Ada Lovelace lived her life against perceptions and realities of assigned gender roles, especially in areas of the hard-sciences, and she foresaw the potential of technology to forever alter humanity. At the time of her death she was known to herself and others as a Poet, Autocrat, High Priestess, Prophet and Enchantress of Numbers (which may all be pretty self aggrandising titles, however she was on opium during much of those titlings and did invent a whole discipline that evolved into the beautiful, sweaty field we know and love today, so hey, she deserves it).

H.A.L.


Menabrea, L.F. (1842), Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage with notes by Ada Augusta Lovelace, A.A. Lovelace (trans.), Bibliothèque Universelle de Genève, No. 82, from https://www.fourmilab.ch/babbage/sketch.html.

O’Toole, B., Biographies of women in mathematics – Ada Byron, Ada Lovelace, http://www.agnesscott.edu/lriddle/women/love.htm

Forbes-Macphail, I. (2013) ‘The enchantress of numbers and the magic noose of poetry: literature, mathematics and mysticism in the 19th Century’, Journal of Language, Literature and Culture, Vol. 60 No. 3, p138–56.

Gürer, D.W. (1995), ‘Pioneering women in computer science’, Communications of the ACM, January 1995, Vol. 38, No. 1.

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