TECH
03/08/2016 11:03 am ET Updated Mar 09, 2017

Reminder: One Of The First Computer Programmers Was A Woman

Meet Ada Lovelace.
Ada Lovelace
Science & Society Picture Library via Getty Images
Ada Lovelace

This is Ada King, the countess of Lovelace. In 1843 she composed the basis for what many call the first computer program. Her story is slightly more complicated.

As the story goes, Lovelace entered into correspondence with inventor Charles Babbage after meeting him at a party. The two eventually discussed Babbage’s idea for an “analytical engine” ― essentially a computer that could use an algorithm to shape its output ― and Lovelace is credited with greatly expanding on and refining the concept.

In a sense, she pioneered the idea of a computer algorithm. As Biography.com puts it:

In her notes, Ada described how codes could be created for the device to handle letters and symbols along with numbers. She also theorized a method for the engine to repeat a series of instructions, a process known as looping that computer programs use today. Ada also offered up other forward-thinking concepts in the article.

There are a couple of things worth taking from this 19th-century story.

First and most obviously: Any time someone suggests that women are less inclined toward pursuits like technology and mathematics, you can immediately shoot them down. (And probably never talk to them again, because it’s simply a conversation that shouldn’t happen in the first place.)

But this is also a story of collaboration.

Computer historian Doron Swade discussed in more detail the contributions that Lovelace made to computing in this Feb. 2016 presentation:

At a time when men dominate the tech industry and businesses overall, this is a reminder that diverse talent can ― and should ― be elevated by those who are privileged enough to get a head start.

This article and its headline have been updated to reflect Lovelace’s more complicated place in computing history.

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