Computer science is a field completely dominated by men. Charles Babbage, Alan Turing, Tim Berners-Lee, Steve Jobs, the list goes on and on. But on that list, pretty high up on that list is Ada Lovelace. Although the world overlooked her contributions for an entire century, did you know the very first computer programmer was actually a woman? Let’s fix that.
Hello I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. In this episode, we’re uncovering the forgotten story of Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer.
I want to dedicate this episode to my little sister, Audrey. She’s a software engineer with a degree in computer science and basically just a complete all around badass. I’m all for women in STEM. There’s absolutely no reason for these fields to be as male dominated as they are. And I just get a kick out of thinking about her in her computer science classes in college because it had to have been this room full of just the nerdiest white boys and she rolls up, my gorgeous, brilliant sister. She’s like 5’11 she looks like a supermodel. They had to have been shook and I love that image so much.
And when I was first discovering Ada for myself, I had to reach out to Audrey because my mind was just so blown by this story. I had to know if Audrey had learned about Ada in her computer science classes because I had honestly never even heard the name. And, thank god, yes she had. So let’s get into it.
Ada was born Augusta Ada Byron in London in 1815. The name might sound familiar, she was actually the daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron. But he wasn’t exactly a great father figure, or a great human in general. He was known for his short temper and angry outbursts. He was unpredictable and moody and had a ton of extramarital affairs with both men and women, mistresses everywhere, some illegitimate kids he wanted nothing to do with. Byron was referred to by his contemporaries as “a dangerous man to know,” so just, yeah, not a great dude. Great poet, maybe, I don’t know, 19th century British poetry isn’t really my thing.
Anyway, Byron wanted to settle down so married an aristocrat named Anabella Milbanke. She was actually a cousin of the husband of a woman he was having an affair with. But marriage doesn’t change his promiscuity in the least, he is incredibly unfaithful to his wife who he doesn’t even seem to like that much. Not surprising though, the two are essentially polar opposites. Byron, as we know, is unpredictable, a risk taker, and a poet. Anabella is extremely by the book, she’s super strict and disciplined and she’s a mathematician. She loves math and logic and reason. So… not a poet.
Ada is born shortly after the marriage and supposedly upon seeing her for the first time he said, and I quote “what an implement of torture I have acquired in you.”
So, surprise, surprise Byron and Anabella separate when Ada is only a few months old. Byron basically asks his wife and daughter to leave, at which point Anabella is like “Seriously? I know so many horrific things about you. If I start talking, you will be so ruined” so yeah, she plays that card and he’s like “oh, right” and then promptly leaves England… forever. He essentially exiles himself because he was that awful of a human in his own country he had to go try again somewhere else and he ends up in Greece.
So Ada never knew her father. She was a tiny baby when he left. Her mother is, understandably, terrified that Ada will turn out like him so she makes Ada study math and science. Now, this is super unusual for a young lady in the Victorian era. Especially one of high social status like Ada. Typically they would have been learning needlepoint, classical literature, latin, that sort of thing. You know, just, the really useful stuff. It wouldn’t be unusual for a boy to learn math and science, of course, but for girls it was almost unheard of. But Ada was studying math and science and she was exceedingly good at it. So good at it, that she came to be called “the enchantress of numbers,” which pleases me greatly.
So anyway, Ada’s teacher was a woman named Mary Somerville. She was a Scottish astronomy mathematician and one of the first women to be admitted into the Royal Astronomical Society. So, kind of a big deal.
When Ada is 17, Mary Somerville introduces her to a man named Charles Babbage at a party. Babbage is also a member of the Royal Astronomical Society so I suppose that’s how he knows Mary. He’s sort of going on and on raving about some invention he’s thought up that he’s calling a difference engine. But no one’s really listening to him, except for Ada. She’s actually super into it.
So let’s talk about the difference engine for a minute. I’ll try to keep it as not boring as possible. So Babbage, as a member of the Royal Astronomical Society has worked to help create these mathematical tables which are used by astronomers, land surveyors, and for navigation at sea. This job is super tedious and takes a lot of time and attention and the tables had to be correct because even minor errors could result in a shipwreck if sailors are sent off course. Babbage is like “yeah, this is the worst,” and he starts to believe that a machine could be used to create these tables better and much faster than a human. Basically, “ain’t nobody got time for this.”
So the next thing that happens is he comes across the Jacquard loom. The Jacquard loom was invented by a French textile merchant named Joseph Marie Jacquard. So basically, people had been using a machine called a drawloom to weave textiles. So when I say weave textiles I mean make fabric that has patterns and designs in it. Tapestries even which could show whole images like a painting. The drawloom was not very efficient though. It took forever and was super cumbersome and it even required a second person to actually weave these patterned fabrics.
Enter Jacquard who had inherited his fathers weaving business and then promptly squandered all of his money and joined the French Revolution but then after that he was like, “okay, yeah, weaving.” and then he invented the Jacquard loom which was a total game change. So basically this loom used paper cards with holes punched in them. Then there were metal rods that connected to individual threads that were being woven. So when a rod hit solid paper, the thread stayed in place. But if a rod went through one of the holes in the paper, it would lift up the thread so that the weaver could slide the new thread underneath. It basically made the weaving process 20 times faster.
So this punch card concept reminds me of a music box. If you’ve ever looked inside a music box, there’s a little metal cylinder in there that has little nubs on it and as it spins around, the little metal stick thingies are plucked by the nubs and play a note. Sorry these are not technical terms but hopefully you’ve seen a music box and you know what I’m talking about.
Babbage is convinced this same punch card technology can be applied to make a calculating machine that can take over the job of creating those awful tables. He imagines a tower of numbered wheels and when you turn a handle, it does math. I’m sure it’s more complicated than that but whatever. He gets government funding for and actually makes part of it but never completes the project.
But back to this dinner party when Ada is 17, Babbage is still all about the difference engine. I’d imagine he had several glasses of brandy at this point and people have just started ignoring him completely. But not Ada, she’s intrigued. She starts writing to Babbage and they write back and forth for years. Excitement over the difference engine evolves into an even more exciting idea - the analytical engine. While the difference engine would only be able to create these mathematical tables, the analytical engine could, theoretically, perform any calculation. Dreams of the analytical engine are part of the reason Babbage never actually makes the difference engine.
Sidenote - Ada gets married in 1835 to William King, the Earl of Lovelace and becomes Countess of Lovelace. So her last name becomes Lovelace or, I don’t know I guess her last name becomes King but she’s referred to as Ada Lovelace. I don’t really get how this system works honestly, like in Downton Abbey if you’ve ever seen that show. Their last name is Crawly but he’s called Lord Grantham and then the place is Downton. I just really don’t get it. But anyway that’s when she becomes Ada Lovelace whatever Lovelace is. William is super into Ada but she’s honestly kind of out of his league. He’s not particularly clever or intelligent and I get the impression she found him somewhat lacking. But the pair have 3 children and William is still down with Ada continuing her math and science pursuits which, go William. Or, Lord Lovelace. Can I call him William? I’m gonna call him William. Go William.
Okay so Babbage really wants to make this analytical engine idea happen. He goes back to the government for funding and they’re basically like “umm where’s our difference engine we paid for… no.” But he works on it in his free time anyway.
In the fall of 1841, he gives a presentation about it in Turin, Italy. There’s an Italian scientist there named Luigi Federico Menabrea and he’s into the idea too. He writes a paper about Babbage’s idea. But he writes it in French, which I don’t get cause he’s Italian and I assume the presentation was in English but, French. So, okay.
So Ada takes on the task of translating Menebrea’s papers from French into English. But, girl does so much more than translate. Apparently, the original papers were 8 pages long and when Ada finishes with them, there are 20 pages. The extra notes and ideas that she adds are nothing short of brilliant.
Ada saw a lot more potential in the analytical engine than just math calculations. She describes how codes could be created so that it could handle letters and symbols, not just numbers. She came up with a method for the engine to repeat a series of instructions which, today is known as looping and modern computer programs still use it. She theorized that the analytical engine could be used for word processing, creating graphics, and even composing music. So, so much more than Babbage ever imagined possible.
And that’s really the beauty of Ada Lovelace. She’s a perfect mix of her parents. She’s a poet (despite her mother’s desperation to stamp every trace of her poet father) and a scientist. She coined the term “poetical science” to describe this beautiful contradiction. So we have science on one hand - rational, concrete, realistic. And then we have poetry - whimsical, imaginative, abstract. And when the two come together, as they so rarely do, you end up with someone who has these really groundbreaking ideas, but also the intellect to actually know how to carry them out. And that is Ada Lovelace. She imagined things so clearly that Babbage who was pure science could never comprehend.
Even as a young girl, she came up with these plans for, what is essentially a mechanical pegasus. A steam powered flying horse machine. This is well before the Wright Brothers actually pull off flight, before they were even born, and at the tender age of 12 Ada is trying to crack the flight code herself but she does it in this majestic little girl fantasy way involving a winged horse that of course terrifies her mother because she sees that little bit of poetry in Ada. But it’s this poetry, this spark in Ada, that evolves into poetical science and allows her to come up with what has since been called the very first computer program. That’s what she described in those extra 12 pages she added to Menebreas papers. She described computer programming before it was even a concept people could halfway wrap their heads around.
So Babbage is like “okay, whatever, cool, I don’t really get it but thanks for translating the papers, I guess.” and then he asks Ada to put bit at the beginning like an author’s note essentially criticizing the government for refusing to fund the analytical engine. And Ada is like “um, no this is like my life’s work I’m not gonna be all petty and completely discredit what I wrote with immature name calling.” And the two have a bit of a falling out over this.
The papers get published in a scientific paper with the initials AAL for Augusta Ada Lovelace because… not gonna put a woman’s name on it of course. But, no one really pays any attention to what Ada wrote. I don’t know if this is in part because of her disagreement with Babbage. Did he make sure no one cared about her ideas as like a jealous revenge, hurt man pride thing? I don’t know. Was it just so far above everyone else’s heads that they didn’t know what to make of it? Maybe. But unfortunately nothing really comes of Ada’s extra 12 pages of sheer brilliance and the world goes into essentially a technological dark age for about the next 100 years.
Ada wanted to continue working on the analytical engine concept but unfortunately she died of cancer at the age of 36. Surprisingly, she requested to be buried next to her father Lord Byron who had died in Greece (also at the age of 36) without ever really meeting his daughter. And although it must have killed her to do it, Anabella, Ada’s mother, carries out Ada’s wishes and has her daughter buried next to Byron. She even includes an engraving of a sonnet Ada wrote in her memorial. Which, for a mother who hated everything to do with poetry and fought desperately to stamp every trace of it out of her daughter is, big. It’s very big of her. I’m proud of her mother for giving that to Ada because, she was a poet despite it all.
So the really sad part of the story is that no one acknowledges Ada or even realizes what she’s done for over 100 years. It isn’t until her papers resurface and are republished in 1953 that people realize, oh my god, she figured this out so long ago, this concept that we are only now just beginning to understand and it had to have been like a Nostradamus situation where it’s almost like Ada was predicting the future but honestly, she was just that far ahead of yall. Ada actually wrote in a letter to Babbage in 1843, and I quote “That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal, as time will show” and, I mean, could that have been more accurate. It gives me chills.
Since this rediscovery in the 50’s Ada has received some recognition. In the 70’s the department of defense came up with a coding language that allowed all of the computing systems to essentially speak the same language and they called it Ada. There’s also Ada Lovelace day celebrated the second Tuesday of October which highlights the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics aka STEM.
But there are those that discredit Ada to this day claiming Babbage should get all the credit for the analytical engine idea and that just. Ugh. And I don’t want to blame this grand oversight of society on the fact that she was a woman but, I mean, it’s because she was a woman. She was a woman who defied the expectations of her era. She was a shamelessly brilliant intellectual in a time when women were expected to be simple and delicate and fragile and that was probably a hard pill to swallow for many people.
So this all had me so fired up because I know women are still super underrepresented in the fields of math and science. I taught 4th grade math and science for 8 years and, let me tell you, there is absolutely no truth in the notion that boys/men are somehow innately better at these fields then women. Some of my very best students were girls. And I tried my best to encourage them but worried constantly that the world would stamp it out of them and lead them away from these natural talents just because they were girls, as it has done, forever. When I think about what women throughout history could have brought to the table, the wasted potential.
My own grandmother was one of the most intelligent women I’ve ever met. She, no doubt in my mind, she could have been like, a rocket scientist, but she never worked. She raised 8 children. And, don’t come at me, I know that’s the most important job their is, I’m doing it right now as well. Not to belittle her life’s work. She raised 8 amazing humans. But it does leave me to wonder what she could have accomplished if society hadn’t forced her brilliant mind into the domestic life that was expected of her, just because she was a woman.
So, all of that weighing heavily on my mind, I asked my sister, Audrey, to share a little about what her experience is like as a woman in STEM today and she had this to say:
So that gives me hope that we are still moving towards a world where a female scientist is held with as much esteem as a man. I only wish Ada could have experienced that world. But I like to think that she knows how far we’ve come, that she’s smiling up there somewhere with that more than mortal brain of hers. I’ll leave you with something Charles Babbage wrote in one of his many letters to Ada “Forget this world and all its troubles and if possible its multitudinous Charlatans--everything in short but the Enchantress of Numbers.” And the irony that it was the charlatans who prevailed for so long and the enchantress who was forgotten. Let it be a cautionary tale.
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some photos that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in the episode was sourced from Biography.com, Encyclopedia Britannica Online, computerhistory.org, sciencehistory.org, a Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast episode titled “The Ada Lovelace Episode: Who Was the Enchantress of Numbers?” and a Ridiculous History podcast 2 part episode on Ada Lovelace. You’ll find links to these sources through my instagram @historyfixpodcast.