March 24 is Ada Lovelace Day – and many will ask who was Ada?
Ada Lovelace was one of the world’s first computer programmers, and one of the first people to see computers as more than just a machine for doing sums. She was born in 1815, the year of Napoleon’s defeat at the battle of Waterloo.
Ada wrote programs for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, a general-purpose computing machine which though described on paper, was never actually built. She also wrote the first description of a computer and software.
Her achievements are all the more remarkable because they were done in a time when women were still considered to be chattels with few rights as separate individuals apart from men (fathers, husbands, brothers). These times are well described by Florence Fenwick Miller (1854-1935), one of the first women to qualify in medicine, in a speech to the National Liberal Club:
“Under exclusively man-made laws women have been reduced to the most abject condition of legal slavery in which it is possible for human beings to be held…under the arbitrary domination of another’s will, and dependent for decent treatment exclusively on the goodness of heart of the individual master.”
At the time when Ada was born and grew up it was most unusual for a woman to be educated in anything more than needlework, let alone in mathematics or science. In fact, it was only in reaction to her father’s wild romanticism that her mother insisted on an education for her daughter. And it was only due to her privileged position amongst the aristocracy in Britain that was even possible. Ada died in 1852 at the age of 36.
It is interesting to note that a number of male writers and historians minimise Ada’s achievements and term her as merely Babbage’s “muse” or as “assistant” (e.g. here). But I tend to take that view of her with a grain of salt as, even today, men so often minimise the contributions of women to scientific endeavour.
One of the amazing things about our current generation of women is that we have the internet and access to learn whatever we want. In western society there are few explicit barriers to women having successful careers in technology. Women have this freedom today because, to paraphrase Isaac Newton, we have achieved all this “… by standing on ye shoulders of Giants”. And by giants I mean the pioneers like:
- Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852)
- Edith Clarke (1883-1959
- Rózsa Péter (1905-1977)
- Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992)
- Alexandra Illmer Forsythe (1918-1980)
- Evelyn Boyd Granville
- Margaret R. Fox
- Anita Borg
- Erna Schneider Hoover
- Kay McNulty Mauchly Antonelli
- Alice Burks
- Adele Goldstine
- Joan Margaret Winters
- Barbara Liskov
- Meg Whitman
- Carly Fiorina
- Mary Ann Davidson
- Ann Moffat
Today is a good day to remember and give thanks for these remarkable women and how they forged a way for the women who followed them.