Monday Maths: Mathematical (Role) Models

In the world of STEM (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) there is a terrible lack of role models for girls.  Who is there to encourage us, to remind us that it’s not just for boys?

Enter Ada Lovelace.

Ada Lovelace (public domain image)

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, to be more accurate, although nearly everyone calls her Ada Lovelace these days.  She lived from 1815 to 1852, and was the world’s first computer programmer.

Imagine that.  The typical computer science degree these days is 88% male (according to Wikipedia), and the world’s first computer programmer was a girl.

In 1842, when she was only 27, she was working with Charles Babbage on his Analytical Engine, and she translated an Italian’s essay on the subject.  Not content with merely translating, she added her own impressive set of notes – which included an algorithm meant to be run on the machine.  It’s widely regarded as the world’s first computer program – although neither Lovelace not Babbage used the term.  It would have worked too – except that the Analytical Machine was never actually constructed.

It wasn’t all roses for Ada Lovelace, however.  In 1851 she tried to create a mathematical model for successful betting – and ended up thousands of pounds in debt.  I guess nobody told her that the house always wins.

She wasn’t just focused on making machines that could add up; she described herself as a “poetical scientist” and considered such weighty matters as how individuals and society relate to technology and use it as a collaborative tool.  We’re still chewing over that one today, and will I suspect continue to do so for a long time to come.

Ada had a long history of interest in STEM subjects.  Her mother had tried to get her interested in science and maths – nice logical subjects – from an early age, to counteract the “madness” of her father, Lord Byron.

As a child she decided she wanted to fly and proceeded to design wings, experiment with different materials, study biology to get the proportions right, and try to add a little steam engine to her invention.  She even wanted to write a book about it.

Ada Lovelace was 12 when she tried to invent a flying machine.  What can your 12-year-old Guides invent?

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