Imagination is fun – it’s responsible for movies, stories, and our very own daydreams. But what if what you imagined was actually a vision of the future?
Inventors tend to think like this. They might see a wheel and invent a bicycle, or a bird and invent a plane. Ada Lovelace saw a calculator and imagined a computer!
Think of the difference between a calculator and a computer. A calculator is useful, sure – especially in math class! But also if you’re building something like a skyscraper, doubling a recipe for baking cakes, shopping at the grocery store, or trying to get a rocket launched into space.
A basic calculator is great for short-cutting math problems, but it doesn’t play music, show videos, or let you draw pictures.
Ada Lovelace imagined and understood a world of computers that was over a century ahead of her time. Let’s learn more about this famous female of computer programming.
Ada Lovelace was born in London, the child of Lord Byron, a famous Romantic poet. However, his marriage to Ada’s mother Annabella was quick and unhappy. They separated a month after Ada’s birth, and Ada would never meet him.
Determined her daughter would not inherit her father’s mood swings and erratic behavior, Annabella immersed Ada in education by the age of four. Particularly subjects that were full of logic, like mathematics. One of her tutors was Mary Somerville, an astronomer!
By the time she was 12, Ada was fascinated with the idea of making a flying apparatus, and toyed with ideas of powered flight.
At a party when she was 17, Ada met “the father of the computer”, Charles Babbage. They talked mathematics and Babbage shared all about his ‘Difference Engine’ that he was making to do calculations. It was basically the first design of a (giant) calculator.
Ada went to his house the next day and was able to see the thing in person. She was hooked. From then on, she and Babbage wrote letters to each other until her death at age 36.
But Babbage was already working on another, better machine before he finished the first one. He called it the ‘Analytical Engine’, and this one could do even more difficult calculations.
He asked an Italian engineer to write an article about it, and enlisted Lovelace to translate it from French to English.
Lovelace did translate it, but had her own thoughts and comments that she added in as Notes. Her additions made the article three times longer than the original! It was published in 1843, and she only initialed it with A.A.L., for her birth name (the name we know now comes from her marriage).
Within these Notes is the very first computer program. She explained (in Note G) the sequence of operations for how a code could be written so the machine could calculate Bernoulli numbers.
Lovelace also mentioned that there was no reason the machine couldn’t also read codes for letters and symbols too, in addition to just numbers. She talked about how it should be able to repeat a series of instructions – something we know as ‘looping’, used in programming today.
But besides offering the very first computer algorithm, Lovelace saw beyond the math. She saw this ‘engine’ theoretically being able to do other functions. That it "might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent."
Wait, a machine that could do something other than represent quantities? This was unheard of. Lovelace had just quietly invented the concept of computing.
She said that “the science of operations, as derived from mathematics more especially, is a science of itself, and has its own abstract truth and value.” By 'science of itself' she unwittingly refers to computer science!
She figured that sound, music, text, and pictures could made digital and even manipulated by engines such as these. This was going way beyond just the numbers.
Though her notes were published, Ada Lovelace’s visionary insights were just too big for the rest of the world to comprehend.
It was only about a century later that a book called “Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines” would bring them back into the limelight. This was in 1953, when computer science was just beginning to be explored.
In the ‘70s, the US Department of Defense made a new programming language. A Navy Commander suggested naming it ‘Ada’ in tribute. ‘Ada’ is still used today in everything from space research, to transportation, to healthcare.
So, what do you imagine? Who knows where it could lead!