- Ada Lovelace portrait by Alfred Edward Chalon - Science & Society Picture Library. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons
In recent years, October 13th has been internationally recognised as Ada Lovelace Day. The occasion was founded partly in celebration of Lovelace, whose mathematical prowess exceeded the conventions of the 19th century society in which she lived; and also to highlight the achievements of women in science, engineering, technology, and maths (STEM) more generally. Often, women in these fields continue to face gender barriers to participation. Ada Lovelace Day highlights how important women in STEM are to driving progress and improving society.
So who was Ada Lovelace? The only daughter of an English Baroness and the poet, Lord Byron, Ada proved to be an exceptionally gifted child who demonstrated a penchant for mathematics from an early age. At just 12 years old, the young Ada set about designing a flying machine based on the mechanics of bird flight. She wrote her findings up in a book, the wonderfully-named Flyology.
Later in life, Lovelace would befriend the computing pioneer, Charles Babbage. It was through Babbage that Lovelace would begin work on the Analytical Engine: a mechanical general-purpose computer. The machine was designed to crunch numbers, and was capable of arithmetic, logic, internal procedures and sequences, and memory storage. In this sense, it was at the cutting edge of computing technology for its time and a forebear of the modern computers we now use.
Lovelace studied and helped to refine the machine, determining an algorithm by which it could make complex calculations; because of this, she is widely recognised as the world’s first computer programmer. She also picked up an error in the original mathematics associated with the computer, leading many to consider her the world’s first de-bugger!
Motivated by what she dubbed ‘poetical science’, Lovelace’s interests extended beyond fundamental mathematics and computing to the metaphysical and social implications of technology. She accurately predicted that computers could ultimately be used to do more than numerical calculations, postulating that “the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music”. Lovelace was a pioneer in recognising the vast potential of computing, and her theories would prove entirely true about a century later with the advent of modern computers.
Lovelace was also ahead of her time in celebrating the poetic beauty of mathematics. She believed that imagination was the key ingredient to exploration and application of mathematical theories. She also observed that formulas and equations could be beautiful and mysterious, comparing numerical puzzles to mythical creatures: “I am often reminded of certain sprites and fairies that one reads of, who are at one’s elbows in one shape now, and the next minute in a form most dissimilar.”
Now in its sixth year, Ada Lovelace Day celebrates the achievements of this amazing woman and her huge contribution to modern computing. But the day is also an opportunity to remember the role of many other women in STEM, some of whose historical contributions have been forgotten. With gender diversity still a challenge in some scientific fields, female role models are particularly important. Highlighting the vital contribution made by Lovelace and countless women before and after her demonstrates that gender barriers can be broken down; and when they are, progress and innovation flourishes.
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