Ada Lovelace, whose real name was Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, and daughter to the poet Lord Byron, is widely considered to be the world’s first computer programmer, at least in the theoretical sense.
As a young woman, Lovelace befriended the mathematician Charles Babbage who wrote plans for the Analytical Engine, a clockwork counting machine. In 1843, Lovelace translated an article on the Analytical Engine by Italian Engineer Luigi Menabrea. Babbage asked Lovelace to expand upon the article in appendix notes—which eventually ran triple the length of the original piece. Those notes included an algorithm, steps the computer would take in solving certain mathematical sequences, which overtime has awarded her credit as the first computer programmer. Unfortunately, the machine was never built, so the program could never be tested.
Ada Lovelace Day, established in 2009, is an international day of celebration to commemorate women in the STEM fields, a historically underrepresented group. This underrepresentation appears to be an interrelated mix of bias and ambivalence. A study published last year found that science professors (of both genders) at American universities regard female undergraduates as less competent than equally qualified male counterparts. But beyond discrimination, lack of encouragement and role models, and fear of the uncool, lead many women and girls to approach math and science with apprehension.
The debate as to why women remain underrepresented in the sciences, even as their numbers in higher education continue to rise, has been going on for years. In 2005, Harvard President Lawrence Sumners queried as to if the underrepresentation of female scientists at elite universities might be in part because of “innate” differences between the sexes. In an op-ed response, then-Director of Yale University’s Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics Meg Urry described the subtle yet pervasive discrimination women experience, “It’s the slow drumbeat of being underappreciated, feeling uncomfortable and encountering roadblocks along the path to success.”
Regardless of the causes of underrepresentation, Ada Lovelace Day hopes to do its part to recognize and celebrate women in the STEM fields. Among other events going on today, Brown University is hosting a Wikipedia “Edit-a-Thon” to edit and create entries about female figures in science and technology. The “Edit-a-Thon” will run from 3 to 8:30 pm EDT and remote participants are welcomed. On this day of celebration, we encourage everyone to do a little research on some of the preeminent women who have had and are having an impact on how we understand our world!