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Why is Ada Lovelace famous?

Arguably, the question here should be, why is Ada Lovelace not more famous?

October 11, 2016

Science history is littered with the names of “great men,” from Archimedes and Pythagoras through to Da Vinci, Galileo, Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Crick and Watson anyone?

But where are the women? It seems odd that we’ve gone through thousands of years of civilisation and only have names of men on all of the major discoveries - a discrepancy that Ada Lovelace Day highlighted last year when we organised an event at Earlham Institute.

Who is Ada Lovelace?

Indeed, when posting my “Women in Science” quizzes around site, a member of staff approached me and felt quite flabbergasted at the fact that, despite even discussing a programming language called “Ada,” the course co-ordinator (on a computing course) had only mentioned Charles Babbage when it came to discussing how computing came to be.

This person had done what seems to be a common theme running through science, historically, which is overlook Ada Lovelace - the woman who proved how to program a computer using holes in a punchcard.

This is far from a single example. Crick and Watson happily took the accolades for working out the structure of DNA, yet they’d have had no chance were it not for the X-ray crystallography that Rosalind Franklin performed.

I’ve read Watson’s book, and I recall being slightly confused by the way he referred to Franklin when describing her contribution to this rather major discovery. He and Crick walked off with a Nobel Prize, while Franklin received nothing (but apparent contempt from the people who should have been lauding her).

The list of women who have been overlooked by history is a significant one, from Chien Shiung Wu, who disproved the Principle of Conservation of Parity, through to Beatrix Potter, who, though famous more for Peter Rabbit, was a formidable mycologist and naturalist in her time.

Indeed, the list includes women whose contributions have been overlooked, who had to apply to work as volunteer scientists, or whose findings have been attributed to men.

Even today, despite moving forwards, the issue is still ever-present, which is why we have been celebrating Ada Lovelace Day since 2009 - an event that has since spread to an international community.

Open quote marks

In essence, she foresaw modern scientific computing.

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The first computer programmer.

Onto why Ada Lovelace should be more famous.

Even the History.com article on “10 things you might not know about Ada Lovelace” begins with the fact that her father was Lord Byron (to accentuate our earlier message, she never actually knew her father, though was buried beside him).

Thankfully they do note her wonderful accomplishments. Following in the footsteps of Leonardo Da Vinci, Lovelace dreamed up a flying machine at the tender age of twelve.

She also understood, very early on, that computers could be used for more than simply crunching numbers - but could carry a digital signal comprising multiple sets of information, from music to pictures and sound.

Indeed, she is quoted as saying, "developing and tabulating any function whatever... the engine is the material expression of any indefinite function of any degree of generality and complexity."

In essence, she foresaw modern scientific computing.

Who is Ada Lovelace? The first computer programmer, that's who.

Portrait of Ada Lovelace

From Ada Lovelace to Earlham Institute.

It is thanks to visionaries such as Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace that we can, today, take for granted that a telephone can take pictures, which we can instantly Snapchat to pretty much anybody on the planet who has a smartphone.

Similarly, we can ask complex biological questions and trust that a large-enough computer can give us a pretty accurate answer in a matter of weeks, days, hours or even minutes. Questions that would be infinitely too time-consuming for people to work out.

Thus, in an era when women are vastly underrepresented in the field of scientific computing, it is of paramount importance that we celebrate the achievements of pioneers such as Ada Lovelace - who prove to girls everywhere that computer programming, and STEM, is for everyone who has the knack for it.

Article author

Peter Bickerton

Scientific Communications Officer (Part time)