Ada Lovelace has been called the first computer programmer because of her work on Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, the first machine to have all of the elements of a modern computer, a hundred years before Alan Turing’s work on modern computers. She was not only the creator of the first algorithm, she was the first to imagine that machines could work on symbols other than numbers, an insight which marked the transition from calculation to computation.

A woman who achieved so much in such a short life* deserves to be celebrated for that reason alone, but Ada Lovelace is also extraordinary because she overcame a peculiar form of silencing.

Ada Lovelace was the only daughter of the poet Lord Byron and his wife Annabella Milbanke, a marriage that ended when Ada was very young. Her mother was so worried that she might turn out like her father that she was steered toward mathematics and away from the arts and humanities from an early age.

That kind of influence would shape the life of anyone at any time, but in the 19th century an educational program that avoided the arts and humanities would have had serious consequences for a person who acquired an interest later in life. As anyone who has picked up an old novel and found that it was half footnotes can tell you, art, literature, and poetry in the 19th century was filled with allusion. Without the key to unravel these references works such as Lord Byron’s poem “Prometheus” must have looked like an untranslatable code.

We don’t know how the arts and the humanities appeared to Ada Lovelace, but we do know that she was not silenced. She saw that mathematics contained its own language and imagined machines that could use that language to create images, compose music, and sing.

Ada’s Significance for Women Today

Today, despite the contributions of women like Ada Lovelace, women are overwhelmingly underrepresented in STEM** careers. While this is a widely recognized problem, too often conversations about women in STEM focus on test scores, attrition rates, the number of women in executive positions.

Yet, women don’t make decisions by numbers. Rather, many like Ada are directed by default at a very young age toward design instead of programming, interior decorating instead of engineering, literature instead of biology.

It is for this reason that a day celebrating Ada Lovelace as a role model for women is so important. It is a sign, in the words of psychologist Penelope Lockwood, “indicating to other women that high levels of success are indeed attainable.”

Interested in learning more about Ada Lovelace or Ada Lovelace Day?

Check out:
Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace (Biographies of Women Mathematicians) 

*Ada Lovelace died of cancer at the age of 36.
**science, technology, engineering, mathematics