Technologizer

Google Pays Tribute to Ada Lovelace

The "first computer programmer" is the star of Google's home page today

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The latest Google Doodle commemorative logo pays tribute to Ada, Countess of Lovelace (1815–52) — better known as Ada Lovelace — a computer pioneer who did her pioneering a century before the computer revolution got under way in earnest. It appears on the 197th anniversary of her birth.

Ada is often referred to as the first computer programmer, but that’s perhaps an inaccurate dumbing down of her role in computing history. The daughter of Lord Byron — an absentee father whom she didn’t know — she was an admirer and collaborator of Charles Babbage, the genius who designed the Difference Engine and Analytical Engine, mechanical computers he wasn’t able to build. Modern admirers, however, have built functioning Difference Engines and are planning to build an Analytical Engine.

Ada Lovelace

Her notes on the Analytical Engine include a table documenting an algorithm for calculating Bernoulli numbers, hence the “first programmer” label. You can debate whether it counts as a program or not, especially since the computer in question was never built. And people who know more about Babbage’s work and Ada’s notes than I do continue to debate how significant her contributions were. (Babbage himself praised the originality of her work and said she spotted a major mistake in his Bernoulli calculations; maybe we should pay tribute to her as the first debugger.)

Whatever Ada’s role in the history of programming, she grasped the importance of Babbage’s inventions and understood that math was only part of it: she theorized, for instance, that the Analytical Engine might be used to write music. That was a pretty profound thing to realize in the 1840s, many decades before anyone successfully built a computer, let alone one that could compose a tune.

It’s good to see Ada on Google’s home page today, where she’s shown writing her “program” with a quill — with her notes curling into the Google logo alongside the computers that descended from the Difference Engine and Analytical Engine. The last machine shown: a modern laptop playing music, thereby fulfilling Ada’s Victorian vision — as computers around the world do every day.

14 comments
JosephODonnell
JosephODonnell

Being the first programmer in history of a general purpose computer is most certainly not a dumbing-down of her role. The relationship between numbers, music and other subjects like astronomy was known to the ancient Greeks and taught since that time. Saying that a straightforward speculation about numbers and music is a greater achievement than being not only the first programmer, but the first mathematical programmer, is simply stark ignorance. To make a rough comparison, that would be like saying Einstein's political speculations were a greater achievement than his theory of relativity. Actually reading of her program would have revealed not only that it is a program, but a work of historic technical and creative merit. The work of programmers, who have been women as well as men since day 1, has often been wrongly denigrated in comparison to hardware architects, inevitably by people who understand neither hardware nor software.

margaux3TKA
margaux3TKA

Thanks to Ada Lovelace, we are now living in the century where computers and technology rule the world. I cannot imagine a world would be without useful tools and gadgets. Technology-driven people used her initiative to drive more success in business dealings, data analysis, and more.

daena.vassar
daena.vassar

Yes, but it was significant wasn't it, for her to be a woman and do what she did in, importantly, the time she did it.

Look at your own life and imagine the amount of energy it would take for you to break the glass ceiling in our times.

JanieLenzer
JanieLenzer

If  Ms/Countess of Lovelace were not a woman, there would be no debate about her contribution to programming.

SactoMan81
SactoMan81

Ada Lovelace's notes on how to make Babbage's machines work are the basis for much of what we know in modern computer programming. Indeed, much of the work used to build the Colossus digital computers used to break German Enigma codes was probably derived from Lovelace's earlier work on programming computers.

BrianRiley
BrianRiley

This year (2012) is the centennial year of the birth of Alan Turing, and TIME has yet to acknowledge such fact in any article. Nature magazine published an entire issue on the topic: http://nature.com/turing. In addition to Turing's impressive intellectual accomplishments, he was, arguably, through the use of his talents in mathematics, the one individual who did the most to contribute to the victory of the Allies in World War II. He deserves to be remembered and honored.

harrymccracken
harrymccracken moderator

@JanieLenzer I don't know about that: There's debate about Babbage's contribution to computing, too -- although perhaps a little less in recent years, after modern-day folk built Difference Engines and verified that they did work and Babbage could have built them in his time.