12 October, 2023

Did You Know? The World’s First Programmer Is a Woman

By: Batool Abu Zaghleh
Ada Lovelace the world's first programmer

Have you ever wondered about who is the first programmer in history? Ada Lovelace is the first computer programmer who had ideas long before there were computers. What is her story and how she paved the way to the world of programming.

About Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace was the daughter of the noted poet Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke Byron. To counteract the "dangerous" mental tendencies of Ada's father, Annabella emphasized music, French, and mathematics in her daughter's studies. This last subject particularly appealed to Ada.

Most wealthy women of the 1800s did not study math and science, but Ada Lovelace excelled at them and became what some say is the world’s first computer programmer.

When she was 17, Ada met mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage at a town party. She was fascinated by his Difference Engine, an early version of the calculator. He soon became her mentor.

How did she become a programmer

In 1843, Babbage was developing the Analytical Engine, a more complicated version of the Difference Engine. He asked Lovelace to translate French text from his engineer into English. Lovelace not only translated the notes but added her own, in addition to signing them as “A.A.L.”

Some of those notes compared the design of the Analytical Engine to how weaving machines worked. Weaving machines follow patterns to make a complete design, and Lovelace imagined that the engine could also follow patterns—or codes—not only to calculate numbers, but to form letters, too. This is a very basic explanation of computer programming.

“The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.” ― Ada Lovelace

Babbage never received enough funding to complete the Analytical Engine, and Lovelace’s notes were forgotten. But in 1953, her notes were republished in a book about digital computing that showed how computers work by following patterns. It turns out that long before the first computer was invented, Lovelace had come up with the idea for a computer language.

She also added thousands of words of her own notes to the paper. Lovelace realized that the Analytical Engine could carry out an extensive sequence of mathematical operations. The example she wrote of one such sequence—how to calculate Bernoulli numbers—is regarded by computer historians as the first computer program. She even speculated that the Analytical Engine could be used to perform operations on "other things besides number," such as musical notes.

Lovelace's diagram
Lovelace's diagram from "Note G", the first published computer algorithm

Ada Lovelace fame in our era

Only a small piece of the Analytical Engine was ever built, and Ada Lovelace died in 1852. Her fame lives on, however. She gave her name to the Ada programming language. Every year on the second Tuesday in October, the contributions of women to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are celebrated on Ada Lovelace Day.

Lovelace died on November 10, 1852, more than a hundred years before her notes were rediscovered. But because of her advanced way of thinking, she’s often considered the first computer programmer. In fact, in 1979, the U.S. Department of Defense named a new computer language “Ada” in her honor.

To sum up, needless to say, it’s thanks to progressive thinkers like Lovelace that programming has advanced to what it is today, capable of performing almost any task through computers, robots, and everyday devices in our homes. Moreover, Lovelace has paved the way for many women in the software industry to complete her journey in the information technology field, as she sets a high example of the capabilities of mastering any occupation.

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