Life Lessons from the World's First Coder

As I sit here typing an article on my laptop, listening to Spotify and periodically checking Facebook, the history geek in me is compelled to think on the woman who sparked my — and everyone’s — digital dependence nearly 200 years ago.

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1815 – 1852), better known as Ada Lovelace, was the only legitimate child of poet Lord Byron and is commonly considered the world’s first computer programmer.

There’s a lot we can learn from Ada’s life, depending on who you are. To young girls, I would say: pursue math, dig deep into your questions and never be satisfied that you fully understand anything. However, I would not recommend having an affair with your math tutor (which she did) or thinking too highly of yourself (which she also did).

I’m too old to develop an interest in calculus, so here are three other life lessons that Ada has inspired in me. (All the italicized quotes are hers).

1. Imagination and technology must co-exist

“What is imagination? It is the Combining faculty. It brings together things, facts, ideas, conceptions in new original, endless, ever-varying combinations… It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science.”
“We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.”

While attending one of Charles Babbage’s weekly salons, a 19th-century meetup of scientists, writers, explorers, botanists and big thinkers of the day, she became fascinated by a demonstration of Babbage’s “Difference Engine.” The thinking machine, as her mother referred to it, was a mammoth mechanical contraption that could calculate polynomial equations. One of her friends later commented that Ada could not only understand its working, but saw great beauty in its invention.

Operation of the re-construction of the Babbage Engine at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. Shot during a gigapixel shooting assignment of the historic device, see www.xrez.com

Ada's interest in technology began earlier when she toured the British industrial midlands to see the new factories and machineries. She was especially impressed by the automated weaving loom that used punch cards to direct the creation of the desired fabric patterns. (It can be argued that the punch card looms were the earliest form of programming). Ada’s love of poetry and math primed her to see the connection between the two devices and the design-based applications for what would someday be referred to as the computer.

2. A vision will get you through the uncertainty

“Though I see nothing but vague and cloudy uncertainty in the foreground of our being, yet I fancy I discern a very bright light a good way further on, and this makes me care less about the cloudiness and indistinctness which is near.”

Pioneers have a tough job. Whether they are charting unknown territory or disrupting common ways of doing things, devotion must be central to their thinking. They have more naysayers than advocates, more ‘what-if’s’ than examples. I’ve been thinking a lot about pushing through the cloudy uncertainty lately. This year our bold idea to empower students to use coding for social change is starting to take shape. We’re several steps closer to becoming a functioning non-profit organization. And yet the reality of the program is still nebulous. More progress creates more questions. It’s our vision for a future of young change agents that keeps us moving forward.

More than any other pioneer of her day including Babbage, Ada was a visionary. While Babbage wanted the Analytical Engine (his later project after the Difference Engine) to calculate long tables of perfect numbers, Ada saw its full potential — to create music or graphics and work with symbols as well as numbers. The idea of a general purpose machine (think of the devices we use today) was groundbreaking in the 1840s, but it’s clear from her Notes that she thought about it quite a lot and had a solid grasp on the theory behind it.

3. Evil robots will not take over

“The Analytical Engine has not pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths.”

And now we can all breathe a sigh of relief — the robots will not inherit the Earth. The anti-robot protesters at this month’s SXSW Interactive can pack up their “Stop the Robots” signs and head back to class at UT. We have been having discussions on artificial intelligence since the inception of the computer. The question remains alive today: Can machines think? Ada’s resounding “no” would be dubbed “Lady Lovelace’s Objection” a century later by computer pioneer Alan Turing.

As technology continues to evolve in the 21st century, the fear and fascination of AI will continue to inspire our SciFi movies and motivate technology leaders. Earlier this year, Tesla founder Elon Musk donated $10 million to the Future of Life Institute because of his fears. And on the opposite spectrum, Google’s Eric Schmidt wants people to know that robots are our friends. The company incorporates AI into the very core of its current and future technologies.

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During Women’s History Month in March, it can be easy to reflect on Ada Lovelace as a female pioneer in computer science — and that she was. The reality, though, is that Ada’s contributions are more profound and inspirational. Due to her computational thinking and active imagination, she was able to envision a future where computers are part of our daily lives, allowing us to interact with all forms of a digital content, in addition to calculating terabytes of data. As Walter Isaacson summarized in The Innovators: “Thus did Ada, Countess of Lovelace, help sow the seeds for the digital age that would blossom a hundred years later.”

Further reading:

I also highly recommend that you check out the comic/blog: 2D Goggles OR The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. Perfection!