Ada Lovelace

The computer programmer who had ideas long before there were computers

Most wealthy women of the 1800s did not study math and science. Ada Lovelace excelled at them—and became what some say is the world’s first computer programmer. 

Born in England on December 10, 1815, Ada was the daughter of the famous poet Lord George Byron and his wife, Lady Anne Byron. Her father left the family just weeks after Ada’s birth, but her mother insisted that her daughter have expert tutors to teach her math and science.

When she was 17, Ada met mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage at a town party. She was fascinated by his Difference Engine, an early version of the calculator. He soon became her mentor.

In 1835, Ada married William King, who became the Earl of Lovelace three years later, making her the Countess of Lovelace. They had three children, and even though most wives and mothers of the time worked only in the home, Ada Lovelace continued her work with Babbage.

In 1843, Babbage was developing the Analytical Engine, a more complicated version of the Difference Engine. He asked Lovelace to translate French text from his engineer into English. Lovelace not only translated the notes but added her own, signing them “A.A.L.”

Some of those notes compared the design of the Analytical Engine to how weaving machines worked. Weaving machines follow patterns to make a complete design, and Lovelace imagined that the engine could also follow patterns—or codes—not only to calculate numbers, but to form letters, too. This is a very basic explanation of computer programming.

Babbage never received enough funding to complete the Analytical Engine, and Lovelace’s notes were forgotten. But in 1953, her notes were republished in a book about digital computing that showed how computers work by following patterns. It turns out that long before the first computer was invented, Lovelace had come up with the idea for a computer language.

Lovelace died on November 10, 1852, more than a hundred years before her notes were rediscovered. But because of her advanced way of thinking, she’s often considered the first computer programmer. In fact, in 1979, the U.S. Department of Defense named a new computer language “Ada” in her honor.