The First Programmer
The ENIAC developed in 1946 is generally considered the first true computer. But way back in the 1840s Charles Baggage developed the plans for the world’s first “Analytical Machine.” The design was theoretical but it did anticipate many of the features of modern computers. And therein lies a tale.
The first half of the 1800s was a time of great turmoil in England. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing. More and more tasks were being automated and more and more artisans were being put out of work because machines could do the work faster. Feelings were so intense that thousands of workers called Luddites roamed through the cities attacking factories and destroying machinery. As seems inevitable in times of tumult a number of colorful characters became prominent on the national scene. Perhaps the most flamboyant of these was George Gordon Byron. Lord Byron was a leading Romantic poet, international adventurer and mercenary in the Greek War of Independence. He was also the first modern political celebrity living the rich life while espousing the cause of the working class. It’s surprising, then, that Lord Byron’s daughter would become a leader in the next wave of disruptive technologies.
Augusta Ada King, now commonly known as Ada Lovelace, was a mathematical genius. She had no interest in her father’s pursuit of literature. Math and science were her passions. She became the first female member in the history of the Royal Astronomical Society. When she was eighteen, Ada met Charles Babbage at a dinner party. Baggage was then a noted professor in mathematics. He was, at the time he met Ada, drawing up the plans for his Analytical Machine. Ada expressed an interest in working with him. Babbage was a great designer but lacked the ability to express his ideas in words. Few people saw any sign of genius in the machine he also called the Difference Maker. Luigi Menbrea had done a better job of describing the machine’s functionality, but he wrote in Italian so his work was inaccessible to most people in England. Babbage asked Ada to translate Membrea’s work into English and to add whatever notes she thought appropriate.
The notes ended up being more extensive than the original article. In them Ada proposes an algorithm to calculate a series of numbers. Had Babbage’s machine ever been built, it’s been shown that Ada’s first-ever computer algorithm would have worked. But Ada did more than that. In her forty pages of notes Ada foresaw the implications the machine had for artificial intelligence, graphics and even music composition. It can truly be said that Ada pioneered the software industry. Even Baggage himself had not envisioned the Difference Maker as anything more than a numbers machine, but Ada saw beyond that. Babbage appreciated Ada’s genius and called her the “Enchantress of Numbers.”
Unfortunately most people couldn’t understand Ada’s vision, and her work was forgotten until computers actually started to be built in the 1950s. Her work was then republished and is now recognized as the first description of software designed for a computer.
Bill Cannon is a long-time member of the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and a sponsoring member of the 802.11 Standards Committee. He participated in IEEE’s deliberations of the formal definition of both cloud computing and its studies on the relationships between cloud computing and virtualization. He currently serves as a Partner Manager for Cisco and Dell. Connect with Bill on LinkedIn.
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image credit: Alfred Edward Chalon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons