Meet the most famous woman in computing you've probably never heard of

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and you’re tuned to The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH here in Boston. When you look around to the people in engineering and computer science, you notice pretty darn quickly that they tend to be men. It’s easy to forget that not too long ago, computing was sort of women’s work--and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. In fact, the very first programmer? A woman--in Victorian England, no less. Naomi Gingold has her story.


Naomi Gingold: Ada Lovelace was born famous. Her dad, the celebrated poet Lord Byron.


Valerie Aurora: Lord Byron is often referred to as the world’s first rockstar.


Gingold: Computer scientist Valerie Aurora is something of an aficionado on Ada Lovelace.


Aurora: Lord Byron wrote extremely risque poetry for the time and led a wild lifestyle of drinking, and shooting, and whoring, and a lot of other even less savory things.


Gingold: And Ada’s mom wanted none of that. To stop Ada from taking after he dad’s crazy poetic temperament, Lovelace was educated strictly in the cool logic of mathematics. When Lovelace was 18, she met and and impressed the famous mathematician and inventor, Charles Babbage. He was designing a calculating machine he called the analytical engine, and Lovelace fell in love with it.


Sydney Padua: You could program it. It was just steam-powered and made completely of cogs and gears.


Gingold: Sydney Padua is a visual effects artist. She’s written a graphic novel on the adventures of Babbage and Lovelace.


Padua: It was a mechanical computer with the whole thing controlled with punch cards.


Gingold: Babbage saw it as a tool for advanced arithmetic. But Lovelace? She saw a lot more potential.


Padua: She saw the connection that actually Babbage’s machine didn’t necessarily have to deal with numbers. So, she had this enormous leap of insight that actually the machine wasn’t a mathematically machine, it was a logical machine, which actually made it capable of using any kind of information, not just mathematical information.


Gingold: As a woman in Victorian England, Lovelace couldn’t really publish a paper of her own ideas. So instead, she translated the only paper ever written about the machine in French and added her own notes, which were twice as long as the original paper.


Padua: In the end, the paper is about 60 pages long, about two-thirds of which is actually the footnotes. It’s in the footnotes that she kind of writes down the first published description of computer science, like how information can be manipulated by a machine.


Gingold: And she also writes the first computer program. Lovelace died young. Her writings and Babbage’s engine were pretty much forgotten. The famous computer scientist Alan Turing was the first person in the modern computer age to reference Lovelace. She was later hailed as the world’s first programmer and a visionary who saw the potential of modern computers 100 years before they were built. In 1980, the US Defense Department named a programming language after her.


Aurora: Then the backlash started.


Gingold: Again, computer scientist Valerie Aurora.


Aurora: In 1985, there was this incredibly vicious biography written about Ada Lovelace which claimed that she was just delusional and was on drugs and was a gambler and a horrible person and had way too high of an opinion of herself and therefore could not possibly have written the first computer program, Charles Babbage must have written it for her.


Gingold: Lovelace was probably bipolar, maybe slept around and, like a lot of Victorians, used opium as a painkiller. But none of that should matter. Both Padua and Aurora point out that the anti-Lovelace stuff sounds eerily familiar--not from the 1800s, but from now. In 2010, Valeria Aurora started the Ada Initiative to support women in tech.


Aurora: I co-founded the Ada Initiative after a friend of mine was groped for the third time in one year at an open source conference. When she complained about it on her blog, hundreds of people threatened her with rape and death threats.


Gingold: What we now call Gamergate has actually been going on for a long time.


Aurora: We had been working on a volunteer basis to get more women involved. And I just “” that broke me. I couldn't encourage women to go into a field where I knew they could get sexually assaulted three times in one year just for doing their job.


Gingold: Ada Lovelace is now getting her due. There’s an international Ada Lovelace day and even a medal for achievement in computing in her honor. Lovelace has become kind of a patron saint of modern computing, a symbol of what women are capable of and a symbol for the fight of respect and acceptance and equal place at the table--150 years ago and today. For The World, I’m Naomi Gingold in Washington, D.C.