The Reach of Imagination

Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (also commonly known as Ada Lovelace), was the only legitimate child of Lord Byron, the famous English poet. Ada’s mother, Lady Byron, was a talented mathematician. A month after Ada was born, her father abandoned her and her mother. Her mother was so bitter that she promoted Ada’s interests in mathematics to avoid her father’s occupation as a poet.

As a Countess, Ada was able to have contact with leading scholars, one of whom was Charles Babbage. She was especially interested in Babbage’s work. Babbage developed what is called a “difference engine” to calculate mathematical tables used in navigation and engineering. The difference engine was developed to correct the errors when the calculations were done by hand. Babbage later proposed a more complex machine called the “analytical engine” which had a broader capability for computing.

Ada took Babbage’s ideas for the analytical engine and developed an algorithm to compute Bernoulli numbers. This was the first algorithm ever developed for a computer. Ada is generally thought to be the first computer programmer.

Ada, more than Babbage, saw the expansive applications for computers. She was 100 years before her time. What Ada saw in 1843 was the ability of computers to perform a wide variety of functions.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Department of Defense developed a programming language to replace the 450 languages used throughout the DOD. The language was called “Ada,” in honor of Ada King.

Progress often comes from collaborations of those who have original ideas and those who can extend those ideas into other applications. Babbage had the original idea, but it was Ada King who was able to imagine a much broader application of what Babbage had conceived. What helped her make this extension? Perhaps it was the way she fused together imaginative creativity with mathematical thinking. “Imagination,” she wrote, “is the Discovery Faculty, pre-eminently. It is that which penetrates the unseen worlds all around us, the worlds of Science.”

While Lord Byron was only in Ada’s life for a short while, perhaps his poetic imagination exerted a profound influence on her life. Certainly, her mother passed on her interest in mathematics–along with a good bit of disdain for her father’s life as a poet. But perhaps Lord Byron also passed on his creative curiosity to his daughter, which she fused together with her mathematical interests in what she termed “poetical science.”

Just imagine the creative spark which led Ada to conceive much broader applications in Babbage’s machine. Just imagine the challenges she must have faced as a woman in a field of endeavor that was so male dominated. Just imagine how many innovations have been delayed because of the lack of acceptance of women in male dominated fields of study.           

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“Innovation is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”  – Albert Einstein

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