Ada Lovelace Day Celebrates Women In STEM - And The Woman Who Made It All Possible
While Alan Turing, considered the father of modern computer science and artificial intelligence, has garnered a considerable amount of well-deserved attention lately — first for his long-fought for posthumous apology by the Queen in 2013 and then for the release of the widely-acclaimed biopic The Imitation Game — there is another imperative contributor, who, like Turing, was once obscured by history, and is finally being recognized for her outstanding achievements. Considered the world's first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace has come back into the collective social conscious, and today marks her official recognition on our calendars as "Ada Lovelace Day."
First, a little background on the day itself: Ada Lovelace Day was founded by social technologist and journalist Suw Charman-Anderson, meant to be an obvious homage to Lovelace and her contributions to the world of computer science. It also seeks to honor women in STEM — especially due to the overwhelming gender gap that exists within tech- and science-oriented fields, as well as severe female underrepresentation (according to a report released by the White House in 2013 on the state of women in STEM, they make up less than 25 percent of the STEM workforce, even though they earn an almost around 33 percent more than in other professions).
Overall, their goal is not only memorial in ethic but progressive, "to create new role models for girls and women in ... male-dominated fields by raising the profile of other women in STEM," according to their website. If there is a female STEM role model to be cast as an origin point, Lovelace is the definitive OG.
Ada Lovelace was born Ada Augusta King in London on Dec. 10, 1815, the daughter of the poet George, Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Noel, and technically, Byron's only legitimate progeny. Despite this, the famous philanderer and poet's only daughter was estranged from her father — he and Noel separated only one month after Lovelace's birth, and after absconding to Greece, Byron died of an unspecified disease during the country's War of Independence when she was only eight years old.
Byron's pathos — most likely influenced by his possible bipolar disorder and now-acknowledged eating disorder — were what inspired Lovelace to pursue her interests in logic, mathematics and science ("The intellectual, the moral, the religious seem to me all naturally bound up and interlinked together in one great and harmonious whole," Lovelace once wrote to Andrew Crosse, an amateur scientist who was also a pioneer in experimentation with electricity, which more or less describes her thirst for knowledge: to uncover and chart those links in the first place).
A self-described arbiter of "poetical sciences," Lovelace eventually came to work with Charles Babbage, who, like Lovelace, was a polymath. Infatuated with her intelligence from the start, the older scientist was responsible for Lovelace's posthumously famous nickname, "The Enchantress of Numbers" ("Forget this world and all its troubles and if possible its multitudinous Charlatans — everything in short but the Enchantress of Numbers," he wrote).
Babbage was bent on building his design for his self-named "Analytical Engine," a large apparatus that harnessed an arithmetic logic unit and integrated memory, ultimately used as a calculating machine — in other words, the first version of the computer — and brought Lovelace on board to help him with his work.
For nine months, starting in 1843, Lovelace's main duty was to translate a memoir by the Italian engineer Luigi Menabrea, which was expressly on Babbage's proposed automatic engine, and from there, come up with a set of notes to explain how it functioned: these notes were meant to engage the scientific community in Britain, who were mostly disinterested (or had no real understanding of) Babbage's work, or its very utility to begin with. Not only did Lovelace's notes accomplish their goal, but they also extrapolated on Menabrea's article (making it not only more extensive, but more intensive), including a mathematical set of Bernoulli numbers (a sequence of rational numbers that run in concert with number theory) — which are subsequently now considered the world's first algorithm and earned her place in history as the world's first computer programmer.
A fun aside: Lovelace was also the first person to suggest a non-numerical-based function for the Analytical Engine: a synthesized instrument.
"Supposing, for instance," she speculated, "that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent."
Even though Lovelace's contributions to the then-theorized Analytical Engine were pivotal to its physical creation, she would never see it to its completion in 1871; Lovelace died in 1852 from a months-long and painful battle with uterine cancer at the age of 36, accomplishing more than most who live to be twice her age.
So, in honor of Ada Lovelace Day, let's emanate her lifelong mission: to, in her own words, prove that "this brain of mine is something more than merely mortal; as time will show."
Photo: Duncan Hull | Flickr