Lady Ada Lovelace: The First Computer Programmer

How Her Work Laid the Foundation of Success for Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Today’s Computer Revolutionaries

“That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal; as time will show.” – Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace was not wrong. 170 years after her death, her accomplishments are still being honored and celebrated. Without her work, we may not know the successes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and other Computer revolutionaries.

It is a great opportunity to bring awareness to Ada Lovelace’s story during this month of April celebrating Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month. Her work has changed our lives and her story is reason enough to encourage everyone, especially girls and women, to explore the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields.

As I previously discussed during part one of a two-part installment on the importance of meaningful data, my path to a career in the medical field started on a nontraditional path in Computer Science. While we learned about the work of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in almost every class, the story of Ada Lovelace was almost always overshadowed or forgotten. As I read more about the history of the field, I became fascinated with the role of Ada King – Countess of Lovelace – in the computer revolution.

Ada was born December 10, 1815, to poet Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke Byron. Lord Byron is most recognized for his popular poem about Don Juan. His love was for the arts, and mathematics was not something he favored. Her mother, Annabella raised Ada as a single parent, after separating from Lord Byron when Ada was less than two months old. Her mother promoted a love of mathematics and science over poetry. As Ada grew up, she wanted to blend her love of poetry and art, with her enchantment for numbers and science. Ada wrote to her mother, “If you can’t give me poetry, can’t you give me ‘poetical science’?” This marriage of art and science is still seen today, permeated in the work of Steve Jobs’ who believed computers and devices should not only be functional, but also have sleek and creative designs.

In 1833 at the age of 17, Ada met Charles Babbage, the mathematician credited with creating the first mechanical computer called the Analytical Engine. Lovelace is credited as the first computer programmer who wrote the code that would run on computers like the one Babbage created. The work that Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage started could only now be fully realized in our era with the development of microchips, internet, and the digital revolution.

While Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine was only able to compute numbers, Ada Lovelace envisioned that the machine could be programmed to express more than just numbers – like sound, picture, text, video, etc. We take that for granted now, but this was a radical idea in her time.

Computers were merely calculators initially. Ada’s ideas brought to life the possibility that they could be so much more. Babbage focused on numbers; Ada focused on how machines could be programmed to produce any output. “Thus, she made the conceptual leap from machines that were merely calculators to ones that we now call computers,” as noted in Walter Isaacson’s book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.

Ada Lovelace’s story is a powerful inspiration. The possibilities that arose from Ada’s unique perspective have been described by many as “visionary.” She saw beyond the simple function, albeit complex during her lifetime, of sequential calculations and the opportunity to explore more intricate processes. As a Physician, holding a Computer Science degree, I am inspired by her and driven to create innovation in surgery where I get the opportunity to blend my love of the arts and sciences in surgical techniques for my patients and their families.

Read more about Ada Lovelace’s story from one of our following sources: