Women in Technology: The World’s First Programmer

March 18, 2022

Today we are still writing the history of technology, both ancient state-of-the-art. We get to live our lives while interacting with items that made history and fade from history. Power glove, anyone? 


It is essential to give credit where it is due, often in places we may have missed. There are many people we could talk about during Women’s History Month. Notable women in technology we could speak of, including Katherine Johnson, who did the calculations to get us to the moon and back, Carol Shaw, who developed Tic-Tac-Toe for the Atari 2600, or Ida Rhodes, who paved the way for analysis of systems programming. There are many women we should know more about in the history of technology. 


I chose an extraordinary woman for us to talk about today. She lived from Dec. 1815 – Nov. 1852 and was the first person to see where technology was going. Her name is Ada Lovelace. In life, she was a mathematician and writer fascinated with the technology being invented throughout her life. She speculated on the technological world we interact with today. 


Who was Ada Lovelace?


Lovelace was the only legitimate child of Lord Byron, a famous poet. However, she did not know her father, and her mother pushed her logical pursuits. So she took to mathematics. During the course of her studies, she met Charles Babbage. Babbage is considered to be the father of the computer. 


Lovelace was fascinated with Babbage’s works, and she kept a close friendship with him over many years. He respected her mind and often asked for her thoughts on his machines. Then, in 1843, she was asked by another friend, Charles Wheatstone, to translate an Italian publication on the Analytical Engine. Babbage added to this by suggesting she expand on the writing with her own thoughts. 

Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine

Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine

Publishing as A. A. L.


A. A. L. was the name Lovelace used to publish her 66-page translation and review of the Analytical Engine. Due to living in the 1800s, she worried that her work would be dismissed because she was a woman. The machine was designed with the idea in mind that the calculating machine could “eat its own tail.” This would mean the device would be capable of modifying calculations while it was running and would not have to be stopped and reprogrammed. This was a novel idea at the time, as all machinery that existed at this point in history required full human operation. 

Portrait of Ada Lovelace

Portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, circa 1840, possibly by Alfred Edward Chalon

The Analytical Engine


This machine was not constructed during Lovelace or Babbage’s lives, but Lovelace wrote the first computer program, the Analytical Engine (though some experts still debate this). The table she wrote in her notes explained how the machine could be instructed to perform based on the cards used to program it. Babbage imagined a calculator. Lovelace imagined something far beyond that. 


Lovelace’s commentary did not stop at complex algebraic computations. In the paper, she talks about how the machine could write “scientific compositions of music” and imagined artificial intelligence as we know it today. Though her observations were written almost 200 years ago, they are perfectly clear today. The poetic way she applied logic and math to the machine is understandable in today’s technological world.


The First Computer Program 


The first computer program consisted of an algorithm meant to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers designed for the Analytical Engine. 


The Analytical Engine was never built, and Babbage never tested this algorithm due to a lack of funding. However, the work put into the design and Lovelace’s notes left footprints on the world of technology that we can still see today. The binary code needed for the Analytical Engine to run as imagined and designed is still a foundation of computer programming. The binary backbone of the technological world we enjoy in modern technology is a result of “the world’s first computer program” written by the world’s first computer programmer. 

Lovelace’s notes were referenced a century after her death as an appendix to Faster than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines. Since its re-publication in 1953, it has been recognized as a description of a computer and software. All of our advanced programs had to start somewhere. Lovelace and many others are the women in technology that deserve to be seen for their contributions to the beautiful tech we enjoy today. If you need help building your modern-day Analytical Engine, Xidax is always here to help! Until then, game on!

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