The importance of Ada Lovelace in the history of computing

07 October 2019

Dr Carol Marsh, Deputy Head of Electronics Engineering at Leonardo and Chair of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) Scotland, explains why she is so keen to mark Ada Lovelace Day 2019.

My fascination with computers began at the age of 17 when they were introduced into my school and I learnt how to programme for the first time. What I liked about them was that you had to be so logical in your thinking, breaking down complicated tasks into simple steps. I received a ZX81 computer for my 18th birthday and went on to write computer programmes, design processors and have a long and wonderful career in electronics.

On Ada Lovelace Day, we should pay tribute to all the fascinating women who have worked in computing since Ada’s first ground-breaking work in computer programming. Much like the NASA film ‘Hidden Figures’, these women’s innovative activities changed modern life, but were conducted behind closed doors without applause or acclaim.

For example, they innovated computer technology that contributed to the creation of cash machines, search engines and mobile phone applications which everyone uses on a daily basis. 

Women started off as ‘Human Computers’, mathematicians who performed all of their calculations by hand. With the advent of Electronic Computers, they became programmers, initially feeding punch cards into computers, making modifications and then finally developing programmes. Bletchley Park provides a vast amount of information on these women, though little is known about their role as computing pioneers.

The research, which I conducted in collaboration with Dr Nina Baker, will seek to make their stories known to a wider public and will be published shortly on the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) website.

Looking back on these historic episodes in the evolution of computing and the significant role of some brilliant female engineers, the stories we unearthed clearly serve to demonstrate the determination and collaboration between female scientists. I hope they inspire the next generation of female computer programmers, engineers and scientists.

* While Carol runs girl only engineering events, her focus is on gender diversity and she is keen to encourage the next generation of girls and boys to feel that engineering is for them and could offer them a stimulating career. This has led to her being shortlisted for the Women In Defence Promotion of Gender Balance award.