Here at 6NerdyChicks, we value and appreciate the women who came before us to help to break down gender barriers. Nerd Herstory will be a monthly segment that will honor the history and success of women in the nerd realm who have allowed us to openly embrace the true geeks we are today.
As modern day women, it may be difficult to identify with a someone born 200 years ago in Victorian England. However, it is easy to identity with a woman who grew up in a broken home, did not have educational equality, and had the stigma of being a woman in a male dominated field. Augusta Ada King, better known as Ada Lovelace, was a mathematician in the 19th century who evolved the notes of her male counterparts into what is known today as the first computer algorithm. Ada was a woman who found the support of those who did not see her gender but saw her for her intelligence and for what she could add to her field of academics.
From a young age, Ada was taught to love math and science by her mother Annabella Milbanke, who was also an avid mathematician. Her father was never part of her life but was a prominent poet, and some say genius, named Lord Byron. With the intellectual combination of her parent’s genes, Ada was almost set up for academic success. Ada married a scientist and Earl of Lovelace, William King. She was tutored by Cambridge calculus and algebra professors due to her mother’s social influence, and eventually came under the wing of a woman named Mary Somerville. Somerville was a scientist who taught Ada to push the boundaries of what women were supposed to do in the Victorian Age. She taught Ada that women were much more than wives and mothers, but could make a significant impact on the academic world. Somerville would eventually introduce a 17-year-old Ada to the man who would help her with her accomplishments, Charles Babbage. Babbage was also a mathematician and was on the path to developing the theory that an analytical engine (aka general-purpose computer) was a possibility.
With his help and encouragement, Ada would use Babbage’s writings as well as those of an Italian mathematician named Luigi Manabrea to further their theories of the analytical engine. She took Manabrea’s notes and translated them into English while at the same time adding her own notes and ideas. This 20,000 word paper included detailed tables of possible calculations the analytical engine would be able to process. The paper also gave definitions to the functions the engine would be able to perform, as well as descriptions of the machine’s design possibilities that would allow it to function. The engine itself would use paper punch cards that would be used to change the settings in the mechanical processor. The processor would be made from thousands of numerical cogs which would move and rotate depending on what function was asked of it. This was the first ever design for what would be the working computer. Ada was so confident in the power of the analytical engine that she said it would probably be able to compose music or even win in game strategy. This paper would be published in 1843 when Ada was only 27 as an addendum of notes in Babbage’s work, Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage, Esq. These notes essentially broke down the ideas of the two men into tangible ideas and algorithms and would eventually bring her fame.
Unfortunately for Ada, her intellect and brightness was dimmed by doctor prescribed opium that was often given to women within the Victorian Age. Ada would only live until the age of 36 due to uterine cancer. If cancer and opium use had not been a factor, who knows what else Ada would have been able to accomplish. When thinking about age and gender in the Victorian era, it is so fantastic that Ada was able to succeed in a male dominated world. Women of this time were focused on the latest French fashions, having children, and planning social gatherings. Yes, there were other women of the time who worked and thrived in male dominated fields, but they are far and few in between. Unfortunately, neither Babbage nor Ada would live to see their analytical machine built.
Today, Ada Lovelace is known as the one of the world’s first computer programmers and has gained more recognition for the importance of her work in more recent years. She is honored with an annual medal given to a promising engineer from the Academy of British Computer Society. Ada Lovelace Day is celebrated in the UK on the second Tuesday of October, and she is the highlight of many conferences, lectures, and novels written about the origins of computer science, and has computer programs and software named after her. Ada Lovelace should be an inspiration to women everywhere who feel downtrodden by their gender. She was able to make a name for herself in a time and field that men controlled. She made huge contributions to computer science and development, and did it all while being a mother, a wife, and wearing a huge ass Victorian gown.