Math in Computing

Mechanical and Electronic Calculating Devices

Who is sometimes called the “first programmer”?

One of the first “programmers”—in this case, of a calculating machine—was Ada Augusta Byron (1815-1852; also known as Ada King, Countess of Lovelace), the daughter of Lord George Gordon Noel Byron (1788–1824), the famous English poet. Inventor and mathematician Charles Babbage met Ada Byron around 1833, while still working on his difference engine. Her interest was reportedly more in his mathematical genius, not his machines.

Besides her admiration for him, Ada Byron also put Babbage’s name on the computing map, writing up most of the information about his work, which was something Babbage supposedly could not do as well. For example, she translated an 1842 account of his Analytical Engine (written by French-born Italian engineer and mathematician Luigi Federico Menabrea [1809-1896]) from French into English. Babbage was so impressed that he suggested she add her own notes and interpretations of the machine. With his encouragement, she added copious notes, describing how the Analytical Engine could be programmed, and wrote what many consider to be the first-ever computer program. Her account was published in 1843. She was also responsible for the term “do loop” in computer language (a part of a program she called “a snake biting its tail”) and for developing the “MNEMONIC” technique that eventually helped simplify assembler commands.

Ada Byron’s life deteriorated after writing her notes because of family difficulties, gambling debts (though not her own), the lack of a scientific project to work on, and probably the fact that none of her friends were as deeply—and intuitively—involved in mathematics or the sciences as she was. Babbage was no help, either, having his own difficulties, including his ongoing attempts to obtain governmental funding for his Analytical Engine. In 1852, at only 37 years of age, Ada Byron died of cancer, but she was not forgotten. She was remembered and honored in 1980 when the ADA programming language was named after her.


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