Today, we meet the first "computer programmer." The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Just after Lord Byron's daughter Ada
was born in 1815, he wrote:
Actually Lord and Lady Byron were
separated even then, and he made no claim at all on
Ada's custody. She was raised by the tough and
manipulative Lady Byron. Ada was timid and sickly as
a child, but she had a sharp analytical mind. She
wanted to be a mathematician. No doubt that came from
her mother, who also loved mathematics. In fact Byron
had ridiculed Lady Byron for that, calling her the
"Princess of Parallelograms."
Is thy face like thy mother's, my fair
Ada! Sole daughter of my house and heart?
When Ada was 17, she met Charles
Babbage on a visit to London. Babbage was then
41 years old and a leading mathematician. Despite
the age difference, a kind of mental chemistry
formed between them. Some years later, after she
was married, she continued her mathematical studies
under his instruction.
By this time, Babbage had begun work on his famed
Analytical Engine -- the world's first programmable
computer. It was a brilliant invention, with all
the basic elements of a modern computer. Babbage
eventually went aground on the problems of
manufacturing the thing. He never completely
finished it. But in setting up the working
principles he was highly successful, and he was a
century ahead of his time.
He put Ada to writing a description of the
machine's operation and capabilities. Her work was
published in Taylor's Scientific
Memoirs in 1843, as a series of seven notes.
She was just 27 at the time, but the notes display
a late-20th-century understanding of what the
computer is and what it can do. In the most famous
quotation from the notes, she says:
The analytical Engine has no pretensions
whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever
we know how to order it to [do]. It can follow
analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any
... truths. Its province is to assist us in making
available what we're already acquainted with.
Ada died of cancer only a few years
later. But in 1980 -- on her 165th birthday -- the
Defense Department announced a powerful new computer
language. They named it Ada. Most computer language
names are acronyms, but not this one. It was a simple
tribute to the lady whom many people regard as having
been the first computer programmer.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Stein, D., Ada: Life and a Legacy.
Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1985.
See also, M. Dodson Wade, Ada Byron Lovelace: The Lady and the Computer. (New York: Dillon Press, 1994).
Note added, Jan. 1, 2017. This episode first aired in 1988. Since then, some excellent
Ada Byron Lovelace web resources have been created. See
the Wikipedia page on Ada Lovelace
and the "Whoishostingthis" site.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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