On 11th October each year, we celebrate the life of Lady Ada Lovelace, who is known as the world’s first computer programmer. She lived from 1815-1852 and was the daughter of the British poet, Lord Byron, whom she never knew. He was described as “Mad, bad and dangerous to know”, so Ada’s mother is thought to have encouraged her daughter to concentrate on mathematics – the “opposite” of poetry, to ensure she was calm and good. (Is it really the opposite of poetry? What do you think?!).
She worked with the British mathematician, Charles Babbage, who invented & built the Difference Engine, which was a machine for performing mathematical calculations – like a calculator but many times bigger than the ones you are used to! He also invented the Analytical Engine, which was more like a computer because it could be programmed and it was this that Ada wrote the first algorithm for, but this was never built. As you know, the Victorian Age was a time of great inventions and thinking. Watch the clip below:
Babbage had been given a lot of money by parliament to build his earlier machine (£17,000 – the cost of 2 Royal Navy warships!) and the politicians wouldn’t give him any more. Ada offered to take over the running of the project, in order to get the money to continue, but Babbage said, “No”. So, (cover your ears!) Ada turned to gambling on the horses to try and win the money. Children, the gambling didn’t end well (it never does).
Ada died young, but she left some notes containing what many consider to be the first computer program—that is, an algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine. She also imagined that computers could go beyond mere number-crunching, while others, including Babbage himself, focused only on that. Her mind-set of “poetical science” led her to ask questions about the Analytical Engine, such as that it could be further developed to program music and solve other problems.
She understood that the Analytical Engine could perform more complicated processes than adding and subtracting – it could calculate things that hadn’t been previously calculated by a human first. She also understood that it could do a lot more than produce maths tables – it could create art, music etc if only it was programmed in right way. This was “truly visionary” and a “massive conceptual leap” – in fact it was describing the computers we use today. It was a futuristic idea (think of the film “Back to the Future”!). No-one really understood what she meant. She visited weaving mills in the North of England to copy some of their technology eg punched cards. I like that she applied the technology from one idea to another (My favourite question – “What else could this be used for?” Think of a toaster, an iron, a whirly-gig washing line…).
Watch the clip about Ada below:
There is a computer language named after her, called Ada, and it is still used today – for example in air traffic control. So, the next time you fly, think of Ada!
We celebrate Ada’s life in Code Club by programming a machine that Ada may have liked (but her mother may not have approved of!) in Scratch.
Sources: BBC Clips, Radio 4 Great Lives, Wikipedia