How the Digital Revolution
Began in the 1800s

Ada LovelaceWhat do Lord Byron and his daughter Ada Lovelace have to do with coining the term “Luddite” and the development of computers?

In 1812 at age 24, Lord Byron gave a speech in the House of Lords agreeing with Ned Ludd that mechanical weaving machines were going to be the downfall of humane society. Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s only legitimate child, was, however, fascinated by the punch cards used in creating mechanical weaving machines. As a teenager she studied these automated weaving looms on a trip through the British Midlands. Later Ada worked with Charles Babbage, creator of the “Difference Engine,” a robust calculator that computed polynomial figures; and the “Analytical Engine,” the precursor to the computer, which he started building in 1834.

Jacquard cards
Jacquard punch cards. Berlin Technological Museum (Gessler Photo)
Portrait of Joseph-Marie Jacquard
This woven silk portrait of Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752–1834), inventor of the mechanism that made it possible for such detailed automated work, got Babbage’s and Lovelace’s minds working about how to use punch cards for other purposes.

In 1843 Ada published an article in a scientific journal discussing four points that earned her a place at the forefront of the digital revolution.

  1. She envisioned a machine that could be programmed and reprogrammed
  2. She thought Babbage’s Analytical Engine could be used not just for numbers but for anything that could be notated symbolically, such as music and words
  3. She published the world’s first computer program by creating detailed instructions about a sequence of operations to give the computer
  4. She opined that computers cannot think
Babbage's Analytical Engine
Babbage’s Analytical Engine

In 1979, the U.S. Department of Defense named its new common high-order computer programming language Ada. Since 2009 the second Tuesday in October has been known as Ada Lovelace Day, when women in STEM celebrate their achievements.

Ada’s contributions are discussed in “The Innovators,” Walter Isaacson’s book, which he will be discussing April 20 in a fundraising event for the Greenwich Historical Society.


Isaacson event info