Pioneering Women: planting the seeds for the digital revolution

The question behind any tech product shouldn’t be: can a machine calculate this or that? Instead, we should ask: can this machine help us make dreams come true?

The lady on the left is Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace. She is considered the world’s first computer programmer. Ada was born December 10, 1815, as a daughter of Annabella Milbanke and the poet Lord Byron. Her mother, Lady Byron, didn’t want her to follow her father’s poetic footsteps, so from the youngest years, she received tutoring in mathematics. At that time, science was not a woman’s profession at all. In truth, the term “scientist” had only been just recently coined. She once called herself an Analyst & Metaphysician, and her associate, Charles Babbage, used to call her Enchantress of Numbers.

Poetical science

Charles Babbage was Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. He devoted his life and spent a fortune constructing a thinking machine. Despite the fact that most of his projects remained on-paper mainly, he managed to construct some of their working parts. Babbage organized parties, during which he used to brag about what he’ was currently working on. In 1833, on one of these types of events, one of the guests was Ada. He invited her to see the prototype of the difference engine, which fascinated her.

They began to correspond, and the idea of a new machine was born in Babbage’s head. The Analytical Engine was to be a mechanical general-purpose computer, which could perform various operations, depending on how it had been programmed. This time nobody wanted to help him: the government refused further financial support because the first machine was not yet completed and a lot of money had already been spent.

In the hope that he would be able to generate interest, he gave a seminar at the University of Turin. Based on this lecture, Luigi Menabrea wrote an article about the Analytical Engine in French. One of her friends suggested that Ada should translate the article into English. When she showed the transcription to Babbage, he asked why she would not write her own article? In those days, it was not common for a woman to publish scientific articles.

Outlining the principles of algorithm design

This document, known simply as the Notes, was published in “Scientific Memoirs” in September 1943. During the translation, Ada made her remarks, which were three times the length of the original article. Ada’s notes made a greater impression than the article itself, and she became one of the best-recognized characters in the history of computers.

In this work, Ada extensively explores the principles of algorithm design. It is because of this diagram, which accompanied the description of the complex process of Bernoulli numbers calculation, that fans consider her the authority on the first computer program.

But it is not only this computer formula that recognizes Lovelace as a visionary. She was able to perceive and articulate the capabilities of the Engine, and noticed that it:

“…might act upon other things besides number… the Engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent”.

Fly me to the Moon

The lady on the right is Margaret Hamilton, the Project Apollo lead software engineer. The stack of paper next to her is the printout of the source code for AGC (Apollo Guidance Computer): digital computer installed in modules on the Apollo board. NASA’s program mission was to put a man on the Moon, and Dreams became a reality on July 20, 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the silver globe and history was made.

Now you can find the entire code on the GitHub. Writing code that, after printing, creates a stack taller than yourself, and being in charge of a 400-person team must have been stressful, yet Hamilton comments with humility:

“We were very lucky to be in the right place at the right time. There was no choice but to be pioneers.”

Ada would be proud

Hamilton’s achievements would not have been possible without the seeds of the digital revolution planted 100 years earlier by Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. Their conceptualization of a general purpose machine, that performs not one task but is programmable and can be reprogrammed to perform tasks of unlimited complexity was foundational to the digital revolution. They also saw a future in which machines could become partners of the human imagination. This partnership relies on the fact that modern machines which are characterized by an indefinite extent of computing power, are driven by the power of human creativity and invention.

Epilogue:

Ada Lovelace never published any scientific article again. Charles Babbage did not finish any of his machines and died penniless. Margaret Hamilton received the Ada Lovelace Award by the Association for Women in Computing.

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