Lady Lovelace’s Day

March 25, 2010

I seem to have overlooked the announcement at the BBC News site, but yesterday was Ada Lovelace Day.  I can perhaps be forgiven a bit, since this is only the second year it has been celebrated; I don’t think Hallmark even has a card for it yet.  The “holiday” was created in 2009 by Ms. Suw Charman-Anderson, a social media consultant in Britain, and is intended to celebrate women working in the fields of science and technology.  According to the BBC,

Additionally, events were held in London, Copenhagen, Dresden, Montreal and Brazil to mark the day, named after Ms Lovelace, held on 24 March.

Brazil is a nice city.

All kidding aside, Augusta Ada King (née Byron), Countess of Lovelace (to give her correct name), was quite an interesting person.  She was the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron and his wife, Anne Milbanke, but she had very little in the way of a relationship with her father, who separated from here mother shortly after Ada was born, and died when she was nine years old.  She suffered from ill health as a child, but received an unusually good education in mathematics, for a slightly odd reason:

Her mother’s obsession with rooting out any of the insanity of which she accused Lord Byron was one of the reasons that Lovelace was taught mathematics from an early age.

(I know a few people who sometimes thought that studying math might make them insane, but I had never before heard that math study had been proposed as a prophylactic measure.)

She became friends with many of her better-known contemporaries, including Charles Wheatstone, Charles Dickens, and Michael Faraday.

Her most significant work was done with the inventor Charles Babbage, who designed the Difference Engine and Analytical Engine, mechanical computing devices.   The Analytical Engine was never built, owing to its complexity, the projected expense of its construction, and the fact that no one knew how to evaluate it.  Nonetheless, it has a reasonable claim to being the first design for a general-purpose computer.

Lady Lovelace, in a series of notes on a paper describing the machine, set out an algorithm for using it to compute Bernoulli Numbers. Because of this, she is often credited with being the first computer programmer.  The computer programming language Ada, developed for the US Department of Defense, is named in her honor.  Perhaps more significantly, she realized that the machine could potentially do more than just crunch numbers.  She wrote, in 1844,

The engine can arrange and combine its numerical quantities exactly as if they were letters or any other general symbols; and in fact it might bring out its results in algebraical notation, if provisions were made accordingly.

So, although I’m a bit late, I’m glad to have the opportunity to salute Lady Lovelace and her contribution to the development of computing.

Update, Thursday, March 25, 17:37 EDT

The “Culture Lab” blog at the New Scientist site also has an article on Ada Lovelace Day.

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