Enchantress of numbers

26 Nov 2009

“Truth is always strange; stranger than fiction.” The Romantic poet Lord Byron could have been thinking about how his daughter, Ada Lovelace (1815-1862), would become the world’s first computer programmer when he wrote those words.

Byron never knew his daughter, however, as he separated from her mother, Annabella Milbanke, when Lovelace was just one month old. Because Milbanke was determined her daughter would not become a delinquent poet like her infamous father, she insisted that she study mathematics from a young age, something Lovelace proved to have a great aptitude for.

She was home-schooled by some of the great scientists and mathematicians of the day, and by her 20s was described by Charles Babbage, the inventor of the some of the first modern computers, as ‘The Enchantress of Numbers’.

Ahead of her time

It was because of Babbage that Lovelace is still remembered today – in 1842, while translating an article about his Analytical Machine from the original Italian, she appended a series of notes that grew to three times the length of the article itself. Those notes are now recognised as the world’s first computer programme. A woman clearly ahead of her time, Lovelace also predicted the development of more complex computers, saying “the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”

While there have been other female computer programmers (Grace Hopper, creator of COBOL, springs to mind) it is still very much a male-dominated profession. This was highlighted earlier this month by the Economic and Social Research Institute in its report A Woman’s Place: Female Participation in the Irish Labour Market, which showed that although the number of women in computer software occupations rose from 7,172 in 1996 to 12,397 in 2006, the ratio of women to men in the industry actually decreased.

Male-dominated profession

“Female share fell from 37pc to 27pc for computer software occupations, making it a much more male-dominated occupation. Computer software is one of only four occupations where there has been a significant decline in the female share,” the authors conclude.

So where are our Irish Adas? As we celebrate the 147th anniversary of Lovelace’s death on 27 November, perhaps now is a good time to look at why Irish women are not seeing programming as a viable career option, and what can be done to reverse the trend.

Lovelace has taught us that the female mind is just as capable of remarkable feats of mathematics and imagination as the male brain, and computers are not just for boys.

By Deirdre Nolan