Today's Google doodle celebrates Ada Lovelace, a woman who is widely regarded as the first computer programmer, since she wrote algorithms for Charles Babbage's analytical engine.
Today's Google doodle celebrates an underexposed but significant figure in history, especially to those who use computers – which essentially enumerates the population at large. Ada Lovelace, born 197 years ago today, is considered by many to have been the first computer programmer. Any human being with a knowledge of our technological history can understand the confusing implications of this statement – how could a woman living in the 1800s program computers, which weren't invented until the next century?
But inventions never pop-up – they are built on the achievements of yesterday, and the modern computer is an excellent case in point. While it may appear at first glance as if computers suddenly emerged in the middle of the twentieth century, and exploded towards its end, it was the mathematical and theoretical contributions of thinkers such as George Boole and Charles Babbage which built the foundation of their creation.
Ada Lovelace was highly talented from an early age. Tutored by her mother, who was herself a mathematical wizard, Ada came to become highly experienced in the subject of numbers. In her life, Ada corresponded with her contemporary Charles Babbage, who had designed a thinking machine – otherwise known as the analytical engine, the mechanical predecessor to the modern computer. So thrilled was Babbage with Ada's skill, that he came to call her “The Enchantress of Numbers”.
Babbage's own machine was an incredibly complicated one, and would not be successfully built for another century. It existed only on paper, and as a concept.
However, it is clear from her notes that Ada understood how the analytical engine worked, and she wrote algorithms for it. These mathematical algorithms for a mechanical machine were instructions; programs for a mass of gears that would literally crank out calculations with the base-10 number system, and print information to a notebook of paper – the modern day equivalent of 16.7 kilobytes.
It is difficult for us, in our modern environment, to understand what such a machine would seem like in the 1800s. Before Thomas Edison had invented the light bulb, when cars were still impractical novelties for the rich, and in a time that woman were discouraged from pursuing academic careers, Ada Lovelace was writing computer programs.
Though she never got to see the effects of her work, she remains a hero in the minds of many modern programmers, and an asset to technology which is now an inseparable part of the worlds infrastructure.