“This science constitutes the
language through which alone we
can adequately express the great
facts of the natural world.”
The next time an online troll tries to tell you coding isn’t for girls, just think of Ada Lovelace. As the creator of the first-ever computer program, Ada is the reason that, if anything, coding has always been for girls.
Born Augusta Ada King in 1815, this future numerical nerd was the only legitimate child of Lord Byron, the famous Romantic poet/lovable eccentric. (You know the guy: he wrote Don Juan and Childe Harold and traveled around Europe allegedly gettin’ real friendly with his half sister before eventually trying to take over Greece. There’s a reason we call tempestuous bros Byronic.) Ada’s mother, Anne, was a mathematician in her own right, and despite Lord Byron praising Anne as the “Princess of Parallelograms,” the two had a tumultuous relationship and young Ada never really met her father.
Now picture Georgian-Regency London of 1815: Napoleon had finally surrendered to England; the divide between rich and poor was epic; Jane Austen had just published Emma; empire waists were the hottest fashion; and the prince regent was sponsoring many artists and architects, leading to a kind of mini cultural renaissance. But Anne, worried that Ada would turn out like her father, refused to let her daughter anywhere near poetry or the arts. Instead, Ada was to study math and science. Frequently ill as a child (in part because her mom was really into the medical practice of using leeches as cure-alls, which, don’t do this), Ada spent a lot of time indoors reading and studying. At the tender age of twelve, she designed a pair of mechanical wings after deciding that she wanted to fly. (Did she basically invent steampunk? Can someone credit her for that on Wikipedia?)
But Ada’s independence didn’t sit right with her mother. Upon discovering that her eighteen-year-old daughter was having an affair with her tutor, Anne shipped Ada off to the British court. Ada’s brains and beauty made her instantly popular among royals and courtiers alike, and though she did eventually marry a baron (with whom she had three kids), she continued to indulge in decidedly unladylike pastimes like gambling and party-going (heck yes). She had some close scrapes with misfortune (including a failed mathematical model for successful horse-racing predictions that left Ada hugely in debt) and indulged in unusual obsessions (i.e., fairies and the “unseen worlds around us”), but eventually her mom’s left-brainedness balanced out Ada’s Byronic side. Soon Ada was calling herself an “Analyst (& Metaphysician),” studying “poetical science,” and publishing papers about how the brain creates thoughts and how music relates to math.
But her papers were only the beginning. In 1833 Ada met Charles Babbage, a mathematician who, a decade earlier, had invented a computer—essentially a giant mechanical calculator—called the Difference Engine (which would be a great name for an all-girl EDM band, if you’re looking to start one). He also envisioned a more advanced computer/calculator called the Analytical Engine. Where the Difference Engine was relegated to “computing and printing tables of mathematical functions by addition,” the new Analytical Engine would include subtraction, multiplication, and division, and “plans called for programming it with punched cards.” Ada (whom Babbage adorably called the “Enchantress of Numbers” and “Lady Fairy”) jumped at the chance to study his creation, and in 1843 she published her own notes on the prototype—notes that included a specific algorithm that, using punch cards, could likely teach the engine how to calculate a specific sequence of signed rational numbers known as the Bernoulli numbers. Had Babbage’s machine ever come into being, we now know that Ada’s idea would have executed flawlessly. And if a “series of instructions that produce a specific outcome from a machine” sounds a lot like a computer program, that’s because it is—making Ada the first-ever computer programmer.
But Ada wasn’t just good with math and problem-solving—she was also a visionary. At the time, everyone was pretty sure that Babbage’s engines were good for one thing and one thing only: crunching numbers. Even their inventor thought so. Only Ada, with her poetic insight, was able to predict that, hey, maybe these computer-machines might one day be able to do more. As she noted: “Again, it might act upon other things besides number….Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.” In other words, she was the first person ever to theorize the potential importance of computers, though she was positive they could never “originate anything” and were ultimately incapable of thinking for themselves (which, for the sake of humanity, let’s hope she got right).
Unfortunately, we’ll never know what great achievements lay ahead for Ada, as she died from uterine cancer at age thirty-six. But she left behind a great legacy: her notes influenced Alan Turing’s work in the 1940s on the first legit computers. Of course, in recent years some historians have suggested that Babbage wrote the engine program, not Ada. (If you learn anything from this book, it’s that pretty much no women’s successes have ever gone without being attributed to a man.) Still, glimmers of recognition do shine. Today, the U.S. Department of Defense has a computer language named Ada in her honor, and there’s even an Ada Lovelace Day celebrated every October 13, a time to raise the profile of women in STEM and encourage a new generation of “number enchantresses.” We’re coding in your honor, Ada.