Enter the maze

Autopilot Ada!

by Jane Waite, Queen Mary University of London

Flying angel made from clouds: copyright www.istockphoto.com 25230233

Ada Lovelace dreamt of flying when she was a little girl, creating fantastical 'Flyology' sketches of steam powered flying machines. She would have been amused: Ada now flies real planes, hurtling through the air, miles above the ground, keeping million of people safe as they whizz around the globe. How? The autopilot systems of planes across the world are written in a programming language called Ada! Without Ada we would fall from the skies, splat!

Ada (the programming language) was created in the 1970's as the standard language to program all systems created for the United States Department of Defence (DoD). Before then the DoD used hundreds of programming languages, but they wanted one standard language that they could ask all their developers to use. When thinking up a name for the new language, they didn't pick an American programmer, or a man, no they picked the first programmer, our very own eighteenth century English Countess, Ada Lovelace.

The story of how the programming language was created would have appealed to Ada. She was from high society, liked nice expensive things, and dabbled with gambling. She bet on horses and liked a good old competition, and that is just what the DoD did. They ran a very big, very expensive competition. The DoD challenged the tech companies of the day to make the most secure, the most reliable, the least likely to ever fail computer programming language. The race was on. Four teams took part: the Red, Blue, Green and Yellow teams (Ada liked to use colours too to make things easier to understand). Each created a new language for the US government. Then 400 volunteers tested the languages and picked the two best. The two winning colours, spent more time improving their design, and after another phase of testing by the volunteers a winner was selected. The Green team!

But even after they won the competition the testing wasn't over. Evaluation is everything if you are to get things right. Just as Ada (the person this time) had read over Babbage's work and corrected and improved it, so the army of volunteers, read over the language design. Over 500 reports were sent in from 15 different countries suggesting changes to the new language. Then Ada (the language this time) was 'born'. Ada was the most expensive programming language ever developed and it took over 5 years to create the first official version.

Ada (the language) was not just used by the DoD, it took the computing community by storm, not just for planes, but also for air traffic control, satellites, running banks, controlling subway trains and sending rockets to the Moon! Yes, Ada would have been amused.

"Today I have been flying particularly well and I think you will really say I have much improved in that exercise." - Letter from Ada to her mother