Wednesday, November 3, 2010

History of the World Part II

In the first article of this series, we talked about why learning about our history as developers is an important endeavor, and introduced Douglas Engelbart.

This time we will talk about the person attributed with the distinction of being the first software developer, Ada Lovelace.

Ada Lovelace wrote a paper in 1843 that anticipated the development of computer software, artificial intelligence, and computer music. Daughter of the poet Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace was known as the "enchantress of numbers" who collaborated with Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first mechanical thinking/calculating machine.

At the age of 17, Ada was introduced to Mary Somerville. It was at a dinner party at Mrs. Somerville's in November 1834 that Ada first heard Babbage's ideas for a new calculating machine, the Analytical Engine. What if a calculating engine could not only foresee but could act on that foresight?

Babbage worked on plans for this new engine and reported on the developments at a seminar in Turin, Italy in the fall of 1841. Luigi Menabrea wrote a summary of what Babbage described and published an article about the development. Ada translated Menabrea’s memoir, appending her own notes, including a method for calculating Bernoulli numbers with the machine – and is attributed as the first computer program.

Understanding that computers could do a lot more than just crunch numbers, Ada suggested that the Analytical Engine “might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent”, produce graphics, and would be used for both practical and scientific use.

She never had the chance to fully explore the possibilities of either Babbage’s inventions or her own understanding of computing. She died at age 36 on 27th November 1852 of cancer.

Her contribution to our profession is so significant, in 1979 the U.S. Department of Defense developed a computer language named "Ada" in her honor, March 24th is recognized as “Ada Lovelace Day”, and a movie about her life called “Enchantress of Numbers” is slated for release in 2011.

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