Famous Women You’ve Never Heard Of – #1 – Ada Byron

May 5, 2008

I suspect there will be more of these, so I might as well start numbering them now.

Since blogging and technology were on my mind, I picked up a book today called: Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology by Howard Rheingold. I don’t usually read much in this vein, but it seemed interesting, and the one chapter that really caught my eye and made me want to read it was: “The First Programmer Was a Lady.” I fully expected it to be about “mothers” – the original programmers!

Well, he was actually serious. She really was a Lady – in the grand old British tradition. Today I learned about Lady Lovelace, also known as Augusta Ada Byron, a British belle of the early 1800s, famous in her own right as the daughter of the dissipated but suave poet, Lord Byron.

As a teenager, she saw Charles Babbage, and his “Difference Engine,” an early calculator of sorts. Ada helped Babbage develop his “Analytical Engine” – the first real computer, using French punchcards from the textile industry to drive its calculations. Babbage himself said she understood its workings better than he did, and her ability to explain it to others was far superior to his expository skills. (Babbage was known for his irascible temper, eccentric nature, and his hatred of organ grinders). It never was completed, however, although her work on the project – especially using punch cards to perform repetitive functions and calculations, makes her the first computer programmer. The irony of a female mathematician and scientist adapting and using items from the textile industry – “women’s work” traditionally being sewing and clothing – as well as mill work – is also a delightful turn.

I’m no scientist, and can’t add two two-digit numbers without a calculator, so I may have gotten some of my facts a little confused in my summary – but what impressed me most was – Where was Lady Lovelace (Ada Byron) during all of my school years? If I had had her as a role model – who knows where I might be? (bet I wouldn’t need my calculator nearly as much!) The only women I ever remember reading about all through my public schooling were: Madame Curie, Harriet Tubman, and maybe Clara Barton. I think Dolly Madison might have been in there, too, though I always assumed she was just a cook who made tasty treats for Charles Shultz’s Peanuts gang. There simply were no women in history, until, apparently, the 1980s or so.

My generation missed out, but today’s generation doesn’t have to. Young girls need more role models like Ada Byron, today as much as ever. Remember her, the next time Charles Babbage is held up for inventing the computer. As we all know from the deceased computers that clutter our offices and landfills now – a computer without the programs/software to run it – is just a box.

©2008 writingreading