Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Ada Lovelace, The First Programmer

It is interesting that while in the IT industry today, programming is generally a male-dominated profession, but did you know that the first programmer in the world happens to be a woman?

Augusta Ada King (1815-1852), or more commonly known in Computer Science as 'Ada Lovelace', is widely regarded as being the first computer programmer. The etymology of her surname 'Lovelace' may sound funny, but that's only because of her formal title as 'The Right Honourable Augusta Ada, Countess of Lovelace', having received the honorific from her marriage to the Earl of Lovelace. Ada Lovelace is the most common form of reference to her in terms of modern literature.

Ada got to know of Charles Babbage, inventor of the mechanical general computer, the analytical engine, and through which, she undertook the task of translating Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea's memoir on Babbage's machine.

In her translation, she had additional notes written to clarify the functioning of the analytical machine, in which the last section had contained an algorithmic example, detailing how the analytical engine should be programmed to compute Bernoulli Numbers. That was recognized by most historians as the first computer program, hence making Ada the world's first programmer.

Besides that fame, Ada was probably one of the more learned women of her time, having gone under the the tutelage of many of the contemporaries of her time. Ada was home schooled by a number of prominent people, one of which was Augustus De Morgan, who was another important person in CS history.

Augustus has contributed to one of the most important concepts that makes programming computers a possibility today. He was the first person to use the algebraic mathematical symbols that we know of today, and was the principal person behind boolean algebra. I'm sure 'De Morgan's Theorem' will ring a bell to most people who had to do engineering mathematics in school.

We may think very little of it today, but without the logic that we use with in 'if-else' that are prevalent in almost all programming languages, computers wouldn't have been too useful at all. It is just as remarkable that 'modern' technology that we know and use today are based on the things that were discovered some 200 years ago.

Ada died at the early age of 36 from medicinal bloodletting, a commonly prescribed procedure in those days, in an attempt to treat her from cancer. Today, the name Ada is probably most well known as a computer language, named in her honour by the U.S. Defence Department.


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