Ada Lovelace – an inspiration

Everton Elliott, Senior Architect.

Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron, may not just have been the first computer programmer – she may also have been the first big data scientist.

At around the age of 17, she met Charles Babbage, a mathematician and inventor. The pair became friends, and the much older Babbage served as a mentor to Ada.

Babbage is known as the father of computing. He invented the ‘Difference Engine’, which was meant to perform mathematical calculations. Ada got a chance to look at the machine before it was finished, and was captivated by it.

Babbage also made plans for another device, known as the ‘Analytical Engine’, designed to handle more complex calculations. Lovelace translated an article about it, and added copious notes of her own. Her notes included what is considered to be the first algorithm for a machine, and so Lovelace is known as the first programmer.

Babbage needed money for this machine. The Difference Engine was supported with finance from parliament, but building the Analytical Engine would need further financing, to pay for the manufacture of the specialised parts. He petitioned Parliament for help, but Babbage was not a great presenter and lacked social skills. His petition was unsuccessful. Ada, without Babbage’s permission, also tried to get Parliament to provide the money he needed, but she failed too.

Then she had the idea of using her mathematical skills to try and win the money by gambling on the horses. Her plan led to her to form a syndicate with friends and, in 1851, she launched a serious attempt to create a data model for successful betting. This didn’t work, leaving her thousands of pounds in debt. She may have been the first to gather data that proved that no amount of mathematics can beat the bookies!

Interestingly, the recent USA election turned into a battle of big data modelling/machine learning/predictive analytics.  Both presidential candidates used mathematical models and data analysis to direct their campaigning time.

The model used by Hillary Clinton was called ADA, in honour of Ada Lovelace, and Hillary had even planned a secondary victory party for the data scientist behind ADA.

Ada Lovelace died of uterine cancer in 1852, aged just 36.

The computer language ADA, received final approval on 10 December 1980. The Department of Defence Military Standard gave the language the reference number MIL-STD-1815 in honour of the year of Ada Lovelace’s birth. In her honour, the Ada Initiative was set up as a non-profit organisation dedicated to increasing the involvement of women in the free culture and open source movements.

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