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Historical Figures in Engineering: Ada Lovelace

  • by: Adrian Mansfield
  • On: 12, Dec 2018
2 min read

Who was Ada Lovelace?

Ada Lovelace was an English mathematician in the 19th century, who has since been called the first computer programmer.

Initially educated by private tutors but then self-taught, Augusta Ada Byron was fiercely interested in mathematics and would work on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, creating what was essentially the first computer programme.

Born in 1815 as the only legitimate child of Lord Byron and his wife Anne Milbanke, she was ill for most of her childhood, often confined to her bed. Her tutor at the time, Augustus de Morgan, worried that her health would suffer further if she studied too hard. Morgan said, ‘The very great tension of mind which [mathematics] requires is beyond the strength of a woman’s physical power of application.’

Here’s How 2018 Became the Year of the Female Engineer.

Why Ada Lovelace Is So Important To Engineering

At age twelve, Lovelace decided she wanted to be able to fly. In 1828, she went about constructing wings which she modelled on birds, attempting to perfect the size and ratio based on anatomical drawings. She considered using different materials such as silk, paper, wire and feathers.

Ada Lovelace had been introduced to Charles Babbage earlier in 1833 by her tutor Mary Somerville. Babbage, who would later go on to be known as ‘the father of computers’ was a mathematician and inventor who designed the first mechanical computer which he called the Analytical Engine. While he never actually completed the machine, Ada still managed to create an algorithm which could compute Bernoulli numbers. This would have worked had the Analytical Engine ever been completed.

Ada Lovelace was also the first person to conceive of computing power being applied beyond just mathematics:

‘[The Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine...Supposing, for instance, 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.’

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Paving the Way for Women in Engineering

Ada Lovelace was passionate about both science and poetry, which informed both her worldview and her thought processes, having written the following while discussing differential calculus:

‘I may remark that the curious transformations many formulae can undergo, the unsuspected and to a beginner apparently impossible identity of forms exceedingly dissimilar at first sight, is I think one of the chief difficulties in the early part of mathematical studies. I am often reminded of certain sprites and fairies one reads of, who are at one's elbows in one shape now, and the next minute in a form most dissimilar.’

Ada Lovelace Day is celebrated on the second Tuesday of October, which also raises the profiles of other women in STEM (Science, Technology, Mathematics and Engineering).

Learn more about other famous figures in Engineering History like Hedy Lamarr and Imhotep.

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