The impact of Ada Lovelace on technology and Cardano
Written by @ElliotHill of the Cardano Foundation
Today, we are celebrating the life and contributions of Ada Lovelace, a British mathematician and early pioneer of computing born some 205 years ago to this day in London, England.
Also known by her hereditary title, the Countess of Lovelace, Ada was the daughter of another historical figure who features prominently in the Cardano ecosystem—the leading Romantic movement poet, Lord Byron.
Ada’s mother, Isabella Byron, was also a highly esteemed mathematician of her time. Nicknamed the ‘Princess of Parallelograms’ by her husband Lord Byron, it was Isabella who first imparted her love of mathematics to Ada.
Tragically, Ada’s life was cut short in her prime, at just 36 years old. But not before her contributions to mathematics and computing became so significant, that they would echo through the ages and help shape science and technology for centuries to come.
Here, we are going to explore what those contributions meant for the modern technology we rely on today and discover how Ada Lovelace inadvertently contributed to the Cardano blockchain.
A love affair with the Analytical Engine
As one of the first pioneers of computer technology, Ada’s computing hardware looked a little different from the devices we use today. The first of such machines, named the ‘Analytical Engine’, was designed by British mathematician Charles Babbage.
Babbage was an early pioneer of computing and cryptography, designing the first machines comparable to modern computers, with program memory, instruction-based operation, and a separate input/output system.
Meeting through a mutual friend when Ada was still in her teenage years, Ada was immediately fascinated by Babbage’s Analytical Engine and his other early computers. Babbage would come to refer to Ada as the ‘Enchantress of Numbers’, and shortly after their first meeting, Ada began to translate works from European scholars into English for republication.
The Analytical Engine used three different types of punch cards, representing arithmetical operations, a type for loading and storage of operations, and a type for numerical constants. These cards, though unknown to Babbage and Lovelace at the time, could be read both forwards and backwards, making the early punch card-based language Turing-complete.
In transcribing an Italian peer’s work on Babbage’s Analytical Engine in 1842, Ada added her own notes to the original works—notes that ended up being three times the length of the original paper.
Within these notes was a method for calculating a sequence of rational numbers, the Bernoulli numbers, using the Analytical Engine. This algorithm, barely changed, is still in use today for calculating this sequence.
Unfortunately, a fully working prototype of the Analytical Engine would never come to fruition in Babbage’s lifetime, and it would be more than a century after her death that Ada’s notes were recognized for what they were—the first true computer program to ever be formally described.
(Tinted photograph from a daguerreotype of Ada Lovelace, 1844.)
From calculation, to computation, to Cardano
It was Ada Lovelace who first recognized the applications of the Analytical Engine, and indeed all early mechanical computers, as having applications beyond pure calculus. However, at this point—due in part to the capacity of computers at the time—Ada hadn’t entertained the notion of artificial intelligence.
Instead, Ada hypothesized that computers could be programmed to solve complex problems if given the correct input, representing more than just quantities or numbers. Essentially, Ada’s notes were the first theoretical description of the leap from calculation to general-purpose computation.
British-American computer scientist, Stephen Wolfram, described Ada’s understanding of the potential of the Analytical Engine, remarking: “Ada seems to have understood, though, that the “science of operations” implemented by the engine would not only apply to traditional mathematical operations.”
As we have mentioned, the original punch card-based language used in the Analytical Engine was Turing-complete, and by extension so was Ada’s first computer program. However, some 120 years later, Turing challenged Ada’s thinking that artificial intelligence couldn’t originate anything—which he termed ‘Lady Lovelace’s Objection’.
Nevertheless, Ada’s work remained important in the development of computation theory, and Stephen Wolfram calls Ada a “fitting personality on the road to universal computation”. Universal computation, as we now know well, is the basis for modern computing and at the heart of a smart contract-based blockchain platform like Cardano.
As many of our community members will know, the name of Cardano’s native token, ada; and its smallest unit of division, the lovelace, is a namesake of Ada Lovelace, paying homage to Ada’s computational connection some 200 years ago.
Chronology, context, and Cardano
So, why is Ada Lovelace’s contribution to programming and mathematics so impactful?
Well, for context, we should look to the wider events that defined the 1840s—the decade in which Ada wrote her first algorithm. When viewed chronologically alongside other events of the time, Ada’s conceptualization of the first computer program becomes even more fascinating.
Just two years prior to Ada’s first program, the very first postage stamp—seldom used in the era of electronic communications—was created. The State of California, now famous for the tech behemoths of Silicon Valley, would not be founded for another eight years. Likewise, it would be another two years until Samuel Morse sent the first telegram. Most astonishing, however, is that it would be almost another 80 years before women were allowed to vote in Ada’s home country of England.
Despite all this, and unbeknownst to her, Ada had already taken the first steps to creating our modern tech industry, while simultaneously putting the wheels in motion to eventually make her contemporaries’ inventions—the telegram and the postal service—almost obsolete for communications. All of this, with little more than a pen, paper, and brainpower.
The achievements of Ada Lovelace, a giant in her field who lived such a tragically short life at a time when women in science had seldom little recognition, is nothing short of astounding.
The Cardano Foundation is proud to celebrate her life and accomplishments, and we are humbled that her mathematical brilliance laid the foundations for the creation of Cardano, and all computing infrastructure, some two centuries later.
As both the namesake of our blockchain’s native token and one of the founders of modern computing, we thank Ada Lovelace for her life’s work today.
Make sure you watch our CEO, Frederik Gregaard, sit down with IOHK’s CEO, Charles Hoskinson, to discuss the future of the Cardano protocol to mark Ada Lovelace’s birthday. You can watch the fireside chat here.
Read more about Ada Lovelace and Cardano’s Computation layer below: