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Ada Lovelace's Legacy Lives On

By Gunnar Mein

Today is Ada Lovelace Day. Why do we celebrate Ada? She didn't have a big impact on science or computers and she lived in the first half of the nineteenth century, so why do we care?

I used to teach a lesson about her for my 7th-grade robotics class. I had the privilege of introducing students to programming, and part of that meant talking about important figures in history. Among titans like Alan Turing, Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, and Grace Hopper, I also included Ada Lovelace. In her all-too-short life, her intellect burned brightly. She had ideas that were easily a hundred years ahead of her time, and she didn't get the credit she deserved until recently, presumably at least in part because she was a woman.

Ada was Lord and Lady Byron's daughter. Later in life she became the Countess of Lovelace by marriage. It is fair to say that Lady Byron did not think highly of her famous poet husband during most of her life, and she steered Ada towards mathematics in order install logic and reason, that she might fend of her anticipated hereditary "insanity" and "depravity" coming from her father's side.

Ada is famous today because she worked with Charles Babbage on his "Analytical Engine". The details and full extent of her contributions are muddled and full of controversy, but it seems clear that she was one of the first, if not the first, programmers in history. And when she made some notes on the machine as part of a translation of a manuscript, she dropped a nugget which historian and Babbage-expert Doron Swade describes like this: "... What Lovelace saw—what Ada Byron saw—was that number could represent entities other than quantity. So once you had a machine for manipulating numbers, if those numbers represented other things, letters, musical notes, then the machine could manipulate symbols of which number was one instance, according to rules. It is this fundamental transition from a machine which is a number cruncher to a machine for manipulating symbols according to rules that is the fundamental transition from calculation to computation—to general-purpose computation—and looking back from the present high ground of modern computing, if we are looking and sifting history for that transition, then that transition was made explicitly by Ada in that 1843 paper." Let that sink in for a moment - imagine if we had someone around today who could clearly envision one of the most important concepts that technology would only start to implement a hundred years later. Rightfully, that kind of thinking deserves a spot up with Leibniz and other early computational thinkers.

Like Emmy Noether much later (another story for another day), Lovelace wasn't celebrated as a genius in her time. She died in her 30s of cancer. So let's take just a moment today to marvel at her clarity of thought, aspire to come close to it occasionally, and be thankful that individuals like her lived among us. The best qualities are not demonstrated in titles or riches, but in words and deeds.

Learn more about Ada Lovelace Day here:

"Ada Lovelace Day (ALD) is an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). It aims to increase the profile of women in STEM and, in doing so, create new role models who will encourage more girls into STEM careers and support women already working in STEM."

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