Two women who pioneered computing were born on yesterday's date, over a century apart: Charles Babbage's assistant Ada Lovelace (1815) and Admiral Grace Hopper (1906).
Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace
The story of Ada Lovelace was widely told and retold yesterday, spurred by a "doodle" that Google placed on its front page in her honor. The only legitimate daughter of the poet Lord Byron, Lady Ada married William King at 19, had three children by him, and died at 36. She had met Charles Babbage when she was 17 and worked with and corresponded with him throughout her lifetime.
Babbage created designs for a Difference engine (a numerical calculator, intended to compute and print nautical and astronomical tables) in 1822 and an Analytical Engine -- a general-purpose computer -- in 1834. Neither was built in Babbage's lifetime.
After Babbage lectured about the Analytical Engine in Turin, an Italian engineer, L. F. Menabrea, wrote a paper on it, in French. Babbage enlisted Ada's assistance in translating that paper to English. This she did, over the period of almost a year, adding notes that were more voluminous than the original paper. Here is a reproduction of Lady Ada's translation of Menabrea's paper and the appended notes. Note G features a table containing the first algorithm for a Turing-complete computer ever written down.
There is disagreement among historians as to how much of this work was Ada's and how much Babbage's. Many, but not all, sources credit Ada with greater insight into the deep nature of this not-yet-existing machine than Babbage possessed.
In the introduction to Note G, Ada describes the tendency -- all too familiar today -- to over-hype a new technology and then, when reality sets in, to denigrate it:
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.
Admiral Grace Hopper
This computing pioneer was awarded the Data Processing Management Association's inaugural "computer sciences man of the year" award in 1969, in spite of her gender.
Hopper, who had earned a PhD in mathematics from Yale, was one of the first programmers of the Mark 1 computer at Harvard University during WW-II. She co-authored papers on the machine with its inventor, Howard Aiken. Following the war, Hopper joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation to work on the UNIVAC-1 computer, and in the early 1950s developed the first compiler. In an era when computers made by different companies were programmed using incompatible languages, Hopper is credited with the idea for a machine-independent programming language. She was central in the development of COBOL beginning in 1959 and helped to standardize its use in the Navy from the late 1960s.
Hopper popularized the term "debugging" after she found a moth clogging up a relay in the Mark II computer at Harvard. The page from the laboratory logbook containing the remains of the moth (pictured here) is on exhibit at the Smithsonian.
Both women served, and continue to serve, as role models for girls and women with a technological turn of mind, operating as they did at the highest levels of the technology of their times -- times in which society believed that women simply did not, and should not, do the sort of thing they did. Hopper taught at Vassar for a number of years, and so had the opportunity to influence young women directly by her energy and determination. Ada Lovelace accomplished what has to be considered one of the largest intellectual leaps of the modern age.