Ada Lovelace Could Kick Your Ass

Few people know that Ada Lovelace was likely the first computer programmer in history. She made my list of the top women innovators of all time.

She worked with Charles Babbage, a man who is most famous for making a machine that didn’t quite work. A testament to the role of failure in the making of every success. One challenge she faced is that given that his computer, known as the Babbage engine, wasn’t quite working, so she had to write a virtual program. That’s right. She wrote code for a system that didn’t quite exist yet (To be specific, she translated a paper from French to English and in doing so added notes, which included a program – her actual translation, and notes, are here). Not too shabby.

If you complain about your compiler being slow, or about web standards not being followed, take a humility pill. At least the stuff you hate actually exists.  Try and imagine the conversations she must have had with her friends in 1843:

Friend: So Ada, what did you do yesterday? I went for a horse ride and picked some flowers.
Ada: “Oh that sounds fun. Well, I translated a paper about a lecture, written about a new application of math to make a machine that can do complex computations on its own and just for fun and I wrote up the instruction set to compute Bernoulli numbers automatically on this machine. Which doesn’t exist yet.”
Friend: <silence> That’s nice. Go for a horse ride?

Perhaps if you’re truly an innovator, you often have trouble explaining what you’re doing. Sadly Ada died young, at age 36. The programming language Ada was named after her. One of my favorite quotes from her famous note is this:

It is desirable to guard against the possibility of exaggerated ideas that might arise as to the powers of the Analytical Engine. In considering any new subject, there is frequently a tendency, first, to overrate what we find to be already interesting or remarkable; and, secondly, by a sort of natural reaction, to undervalue the true state of the case, when we do discover that our notions have surpassed those that were really tenable. The Analytical Engine has no 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.

She was writing about Babbage’s machine, but boy does it seem relevant to all the technologies we make. Some folks celebrate October 14 (or 16th) as Ada Lovelace day.

7 Responses to “Ada Lovelace Could Kick Your Ass”

  1. Mary

    Her birthdate was actually 10 December 1815 and 24 March is not the anniversary of her death either.

    As far as I can tell Suw Charman-Anderson has not explained her reasons for choosing 24 March as “Ada Lovelace Day”.

    Reply
  2. Scott

    Mary – great catch. Sorry for the incorrect info. Fixed in the post.

    Reply
  3. Sarah

    I think that this website is stupid my dead grandma can do better than this so scott berkun get a life!!!!!!!!!! All you people reading this get a life too!! If you are reading this you are stupid.

    Reply
  4. Pie

    Her quote accurately describes the tech adoption curve from the peak of expectations through the trough of disillusionment. Very nice.

    -Pie

    Reply

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  1. Undervaluing the true state of the case…

    By way of Scott Berkun:
    It is desirable to guard against the possibility of exaggerated ideas that might arise as to the powers of the Analytical Engine. In considering any new subject, there is frequently a tendency, first, to overrate what we find …

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