The Victorian period technically began in 1837, with the coronation of Victoria. Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, was born on 10 December 1815. Perhaps that's why she was not quite a proper Victorian lady in the conventional sense of the term.
For Ada, a daughter of Romantic poet Lord Byron, enjoyed and was encouraged in the study of mathematics from an early age - and today is known as one of the most important figures in the history of computing.
It wasn't the done thing for proper Victorian ladies to work with men at all, let alone in maths, science or engineering - disciplines for which women were not considered as a rule to have the requisite intelligence.
Yet Ada Lovelace (pictured, left), as she is usually known today, was one of the chief influences in the development of Charles Babbage's famous Analytical Engine.
Today her work is fêted as an inspiration to other women on Ada Lovelace Day (15 October), and this year at the first Ada Lovelace Conference on women in computing, held in the US.
Canterbury-based author James Essinger has researched and recently published a new book about Lovelace: A Female Genius: How Lord Byron's Daughter Started the Computer Age.
It follows his 2004 work Jacquard's Web: How a Hand-Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age, and this time seems to have been partly inspired by a sense that Lovelace's achievements have been underestimated by many in the industry.
"I recognised, because of Babbage, that she was a real heroine," he says. "She had insights into Babbage's work which he didn't really have. I found that fascinating."
Some have called Lovelace the first computer programmer - but as Essinger says, the term certainly was not used at the time and what she did cannot be described as any sort of programming in the way we understand it.
What she did do is demonstrate a breakthrough understanding of a concept of computing that went beyond mere mechanical - numerical - calculation.
Babbage himself recognised that Lovelace was, in some sense, on to something, and asked her to expand on the notes she had made about his invention. He is said to have described her as "that Enchantress who has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects could have exerted over it".
Essinger notes: "The computing fraternity is a pretty ‘male' industry to start with, and so is computer history. They can be quite proprietary about Babbage."
It was Lovelace who could see far-reaching potential for the machine, which was essentially mechanical - as Babbage had seen it - and "a strange creature borne of the industrial revolution" perhaps more like a hand-loom than a computer per se.
She wrote that similar devices could even be used to produce graphics or music, "supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent".
Lovelace wrote that the Analytical Engine "weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves".
Babbage's team, according to the Finding Ada website which promotes women in science, technology and maths, had "sketched out" descriptions - something like early programs - for the Analytical Engine prior to Lovelace's input, but hers are believed to be the most fully worked out, and were also the first to be published.
Unfortunately, Lovelace died in 1852 of cancer, aged just 36.
Essinger adds that it should be obvious to anyone who reads the relevant materials that Lovelace had advanced insights beyond what she might have been taught or shown by Babbage.
She had always delighted in machines and spent many hours working on her own designs as a child. Yet criticisms of her status and relevance persist - something Essinger puts down in some part to the entrenched sexism that still plagues human society, even in the "advanced" developed world today.
Women's abilities - and even their actual achievements - are still downplayed and denigrated, he notes, and this continues to affect what they do and believe they can do in life.
"Many women are still almost programmed in a way to believe less of themselves, to have low self-esteem - even when they have every reason to have high self esteem," he says.
"And women in lower income brackets in particular still have a very limited life in some respects."
■ James Essinger's new book A Female Genius: How Lord Byron's Daughter Started the Computer Age is out now via Macmillan. We thought some CRN readers might be interested.
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