Ada Lovelace: the most important person we had never heard of

We earnestly hope that the pictures that flank the header on this blog convey an accurate picture of ourselves as brutish ignoramuses who had never heard of Ada Lovelace, (1815-1852), mother of the digital computer and joint author of the greatest near miss in human history. Confession over, let’s start the story

Imagine you are at a party and you meet one of those super high fliers who tells you : ” Oh yeah-I’m the daughter of Lord Byron, but my own field is cutting edge IT research.” You might be forgiven for raising an eyebrow, or feeling acutely for your own shortcomings. But Ada Countess of Lovelace was the real deal. Brought up by a gifted mother who chucked out Byron soon after the child’s birth, Ada grew up in an atmosphere of striving and mathematical learning. Well connected, she was soon moving in the company of some of the most able minds, and it wasn’t long before she met Charles Babbage. And the two of them started on a project of such breathtaking audacity for the timethat it still makes our hair stand up-to build the first digital computer.

The story of their adventures reads more like that of 21st century tech entrepreneurs than nineteenth century toffs. There were meetings with venture capitalists, Prime Ministers and international learned societies, mainly in the quest for funds. They came up with joint ideas for amazing things like logic systems, input devices, programs and algorithms. Ada and her mother toured the Midlands, then the most technologically advanced place on the planet, in the hope of finding someone who could build the hardware for the prototype. Meanwhile, Ada got married and started a family. And Babbage, so able in some aspects, was a nightmare to manage and work with in others.

Ultimately, the project failed. To build a mechanical computer was beyond the technological capacity of the age. It is a measure of how agonisingly close they came to realise they even had the pioneering electric expert Wheatstone on board at one time. And Ada, who had more of the business brain, died young of cancer. Although remembered, there was no direct technological link between them and twentieth century pioneers like Turing.

So imagine if computers had been developed in 1844 and not 1944. On that scale, the breakthrough in protein structures we advertised in our last blog (LSS weekly round up 24 July) would have occurred in 1921. So what would the alternative 2021 have been like?

Ada Lovelace led one of he great might-have-beens of history. It is sad that she failed. But here courage, hard work and determination were never in doubt, and from now one we at this site will honour her as one of the greats.

Ada Lovelace – Wikipedia

Ada Lovelace: Founder of Scientific Computing (sdsc.edu)

#computers #IT #technology #womeninscience

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