In 1822, Englishman Charles Babbage designed a mechanical device for performing calculations that he called the “Difference Engine.” For years the British government poured money into the creation of the device, but it was never what Babbage wanted it to be. He was forever revising it based on new ideas and inspirations, and ultimately he designed a new machine that would be even more powerful, which he called the “Analytical Engine.” It would be, in effect, the first computer.
The problem was that Babbage had no way to build his machine, but his idea caught the attention of several scientists and other men of influence. One, from Italy, wrote about the Analytical Engine in detail, and a London editor wanted that information translated. For that he turned to a countess named Ada Lovelace. Lovelace had known Babbage since the dawn of his Difference Engine, and she had worked hard to study advanced mathematics at levels that were rare for women during that era. She understood the Analytical Engine, so she not only translated the information about it; she added detailed notes to the translation that explained the machine in plainer language. And, more importantly, she went even further than Babbage had and expressed some breakthrough ideas that are at the foundations of modern computer science.
Unfortunately, Babbage never built his Analytical Engine, but about a hundred years later, women picked up the torch that Lovelace had lit and carried it forward into computer science in ways that Babbage and Lovelace could hardly have envisioned. The women who worked on the first computers for the U.S. government during World War II and soon after were the first computer programmers and the first software engineers. The computer technology that we enjoy today is in large part the result of their efforts, and it is built on Ada Lovelace’s digital legacy.