Did Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, invent the computer? No. Was she the first computer programmer, the first to write software?
Ummm – maybe.
She was certainly a mathematician, but her level of achievement is still debated. She was taught math by some very good mathematicians – notably Mary Somerville, a truly gifted scientist (for whom the word ‘scientist’ was actually invented) – because her mother feared that she might inherit insanity from her father. (To say that Anne Milbanke and Byron had an unhappy marriage is to vastly understate the case.)
Anne Byron thought mathematics a good remedy for potential mental instability, so Ada was tutored for years. When she met Charles Babbage, he apparently had a sufficiently high opinion of her skills to ask her to translate an Italian review of a talk he had given on the Analytical Engine.
Babbage had created the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine, the first mechanical calculators, and they are considered the true prototypes of computers. Babbage was primarily an engineer but also a competent mathematician. After giving a talk in Turin, he gave the Italian review of his work to Lovelace, who added copious notes and created a program for the Engine, which had been designed to use punch cards.
The idea of punch cards – a key component of the first computers – came from the Jacquard loom, so we must certainly give credit to Joseph Marie Jacquard, who successfully used punch cards to create elaborate woven patterns, which he introduced in 1801. A generation later, Babbage and Lovelace expanded the concept to do calculations.
But Jacquard’s finished product can be traced back to Jacques de Vaucanson, a textile worker who found favor with the aristocracy for his beautifully-constructed automatons. He was appointed inspector of silk manufacture and created the first automated loom in 1745. But no one paid much attention, except the weavers, who disliked the idea so much that they threw stones at him in the street.
Where were we? Oh yes, programming. Well, clearly the concept had been around for a century before Lovelace applied it to the Analytical Engine.
And Babbage’s engines, btw, were never built, at least not in his lifetime. He started the Difference Engine, but never finished it. In 1989, the London Science Museum built two Engines from Babbage’s plans and they actually worked. They kept the first and sold the other to Nathan Myhrvold, who gave it to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View CA.
Lovelace died of cancer at the age of 36, the same age at which her father was killed. If she hadn’t made any particularly innovative contributions to the development of the computer, she certainly had helped popularize the ideas behind it, corresponding as she did with other scientists and mathematicians. There is also no denying that she gave Babbage status in a wider world – she was, after all, a countess.