Apr

08

English mathematician and writer Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (December 10, 1815–November 27, 1852), born Augusta Ada Byron as the only legitimate child to the poet Lord Byron and better-known as Ada Lovelace, is commonly considered the world’s first computer programmer — a title she earned by writing the very first algorithm designed to be processed by a machine during her work on Charles Babbage’s seminal Analytical Engine, the early theoretical general-purpose computer that laid the foundation of modern computing.

Abandoned by her father when she was barely a few months old and half-orphaned by Lord Byron’s death when Ada was only eight, Lovelace was led to mathematics and logic by her mother, who saw these strictly rational disciplines as an antidote to the madness she feared Ada had inherited from her father. But even as Lovelace came to indulge her mathematical mind, she insisted on referring to herself as a “poetical scientist.”

Still in her twenties, she was enlisted by Babbage in translating Italian mathematician Louis Menebrea’s memoir of the Analytical Engine, originally published in French. It was in the elaborate notes on the book, which she penned during a nine-month period in 1842-1843, that Lovelace wrote the algorithm which staked out her corner of history.

Lovelace was in many ways a rebel of her era: Though she and her mother inhabited the upper echelons of London society, women’s participation in intellectual affairs was both uncommon and discouraged. Even among the gentlemen who pursued such disciplines as geology, astronomy, and botany, there were no professional scientists per se — in fact, the very word “scientist” didn’t exist until William Whewell coined it in 1836. And yet Lovelace, a woman, was very much a scientist — in addition to being the mother of three children — and an intellectual peer of Babbage’s.

But besides a pioneer of computer science, Lovelace, whose eclectic interests spanned from music to mesmerism, was also in a way one of the world’s first neuroscientists — at least a theoretical one. In 1844, she grew intensely interested in creating “a calculus of the nervous system,” confiding in her friend Woronzow Greig a desire to develop a mathematical model for consciousness that would explain how nerve signals give rise to thoughts and feelings in the brain. But, largely due to her mother’s instilled admonitions about Ada’s inherited capacity for madness, she eventually abandoned the quest.

Lovelace died of uterine cancer, after a short battle terribly managed by her physicians, two weeks short of her thirty-seventh birthday. She is commemorated with one of London’s famous blue plates, located at St. James’s Square and inscribed “Ada Countess of Lovelace 1815-1852 Pioneer of Computing lived here.” Her contribution to modern life is imprinted on every interaction we have with a machine on any given day.

Jan

06

She was once called “undoubtedly…the most beautiful woman on earth.” But Austrian-American Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr (November 9, 1913 – January 19, 2000) was also one of the most important mathematical minds of the 20th century.

In 1940, shortly after leaving her arms-dealer husband and escaping to Hollywood from Nazi Europe, Lamarr befriended composer George Antheil and his wife. With her knowledge of munitions and interest in mathematics, she came up with the idea for a radio that hopped frequencies, allowing for torpedoes to be controlled remotely without detection. Antheil envisioned a way to do this with a coded ribbon reminiscent of a player piano strip. The two spent a year in phone calls, napkin sketches, and prototypes scrapped together on Hedy’s living room floor, until they finally perfected the concept and filed a patent for a “secret communication system” in 1941.

Hedy was only 28.

Her frequency-hopping invention laid the foundation for wireless communication long before computers and provided the basis for modern-day technologies like WiFi and Bluetooth. Lamarr went on to make 18 films between 1940 and 1949, including Hollywood’s highest-grossing movie of 1949, in addition to mothering two children.