Mines News

Release Date Monday, October 12, 2020

Ada Lovelace - The Very First Computer Programmer

Ada Lovelace

RAPID CITY, SD (Oct. 13, 2020) — Born in the 19th Century, Ada Lovelace lived in a world that expected very little from her intellectually. Yet, Lovelace is believed to be the very first person in history to write computer programming code.  

South Dakota Mines assistant professor Erica Haugtvedt has studied Lovelace’s fascinating life and will present “Ada Lovelace: First Computer Programmer?” at 11 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 20, via Zoom. Haugtvedt’s presentation, part of the Mines Humanities Department’s Brown Bag Series, is based on a paper written in partnership with Mines mechanical engineering professor Duane Abata. Haugtvedt plans to present their paper at the ASEE Women in Engineering 2021 conference.

“If Ada had not been a woman, we would probably already know about her,” Haugtvedt says. “But mathematicians of that time thought women were incapable of studying math at this higher level. She was not widely known by regular people for her mathematics during her lifetime.”

Lovelace was the only legitimate daughter of the scandalous poet Lord Byron. Although she never knew her father – her parents separated when she was a month old – she grew up in an upper-class household. Her mother, Anne Isabella Noel Byron, was a mathematician herself and recognized the same talents in her daughter. Lovelace studied with tutors throughout her childhood, and when it came time to marry in 1835, she was lucky enough to marry a man who supported her mathematical interests.

In 1834, she began studying with astronomer and mathematician Mary Somerville, who introduced her to famed scientist Charles Babbage. At the time, Babbage was working on his “calculating machine,” the original concept for a programmable computer.

After Babbage presented his research in Italy, Lovelace translated the document for him. But it was more than a simple translation. In the footnotes, Lovelace added her thoughts and notes on the machine, complete with loops and branches. “This is actually what people claim was the first computer program,” Haugtvedt says. “She predicted computer science. And she was doing all of this in a sitting room.” At the time, Lovelace had three children under the age of 8.

Unfortunately, Lovelace received no wide-spread recognition for her accomplishments until much later, Haugtvedt says. “Only in the 2010s did it become increasingly well known that Ada Lovelace was arguably the first computer programmer. Some scholars are finally giving her credit for what she did with math and programming.”

Lovelace isn’t the only female STEM professional whose accomplishments weren’t appreciated in their time. Here are a few others who deserve recognition.  

Mary Somerville : Born in Scotland in 1780, Somerville was largely self-educated by reading books in her family’s library. After reading an article about algebra, Somerville became obsessed with mathematics.

She went on to translate and make groundbreaking additions to Pierre Laplace’s book on celestial mechanics and authored one of the best-selling science books of the 19th Century, “On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences.” She authored “Physical Geography” at the age of 67 and finally “Molecular and Microscopic Science” at the age of 88. She became an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society, was given a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society and was elected to the American Philosophical Society.   

Annabella Milbanke (Lady Byron): The influence of Ada Lovelace’s own mother can’t be overlooked. A feminist before her time, she was deeply intrigued with math and science. During her brief and unhappy marriage to Lord Byron, he called her his “princess of parallelograms.” She also went on to champion the poor and became active in the anti-slavery movement. She lent the ground floor of her home to the mechanics’ institute for educational purposes and established a school.

Caroline Herschel: A German-born Brit, Herschel is considered the first professional astronomer. She detected by telescope three nebulae in 1783 and become the first woman to discover a comet in 1786. Over an 11-year period, she spotted seven other comets. At the age of 77, she was awarded a gold medal for her work by the Astronomical Society. 

Henrietta Leavitt: Born in Massachusetts in 1868, Leavitt is known for her discovery of the relationship between period and luminosity in Cepheid variables - pulsating stars that vary in brightness over periods that can range from days to months. She was hired by the Harvard Observatory in the early 1900s and eventually became head of the photographic stellar photometry department, determining magnitudes for stars in 108 areas of the sky.

Mary Anning: Born in 1799 in Lyme Regis Great Britain, Anning was a paleontologist in her own right. The cliffs of Lyme Regis are rich in fossils of the Jurassic period, and Anning is credited with finding the first specimen of ichthyosaurus (known to the science community in London.) Her skill and dedication resulted in remarkable finds, including her discovery of the first plesiosaur (its relatives are on display in the South Dakota Mines Museum of Geology). However, Anning was more than a collector. She was well-versed in the science of the specimens she found and respected among scientists of her era. 

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Founded in 1885, South Dakota Mines is one of the nation’s leading engineering, science and technology universities. South Dakota Mines offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees and a best-in-class education at an affordable price. The university enrolls 2,475 students with an average class size of 24. The South Dakota Mines placement rate for graduates is 96 percent, with an average starting salary of more than $66,500. For these reasons College Factual ranks South Dakota Mines, the #1 Engineering School for Return on Investment. Find us online at www.sdsmt.edu and on FacebookTwitter, LinkedInInstagram and Snapchat.  

Contact: Lynn Taylor Rick , (605) 394-2554, Lynn.TaylorRick@sdsmt.edu