Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 102:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 102.

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:

Is thy face like thy mother's, my fair child!
Ada! Sole daughter of my house and heart?
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."

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 work.

(Theme music)

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. Lienhard.

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