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The Brilliant Mind of Ada Lovelace: The First Computer Programmer

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace

The only legitimate child of Lord Byron showed an aptitude for mathematics at an early age. The celebrated poet called his daughter the “Princess of Parallelograms.” Charles Babbage, the inventor and mathematician referred to her as the “Enchantress of Numbers.”

Ada Lovelace’s Early Years

Of the flamboyantly bisexual Lord Byron, essayist William Hazlitt wrote that in “slovenliness, abruptness, and eccentricity . . . [he] surpasses all his contemporaries.” The poet briefly set aside his tom-catting around with actresses and aristocratic ladies to marry Lady Anne Isabella (Annabella) Milbanke in January 1815.

The marriage lasted a year and produced one child, Ada Lovelace, who was born in December of 1815. A few weeks after the birth of Ada, Byron booted his wife out, left England, and never returned. He died in Greece in 1824 at the age of 36, never having seen his daughter again. Although routinely known as Ada Lovelace, Byron's daughter's formal name was Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace.

There are conflicting stories about Ada’s upbringing. One version is that her mother took little interest in the child who was largely raised by her doting maternal grandmother. The other is that Lady Anne feared her daughter might inherit her father’s moody and erratic mindset, so she oversaw a rigorous course of training in mathematics and logic. Such occupations were completely unusual for someone of her sex and class at the time.

Portrait of Ada as a Child

Portrait of Ada as a Child

Her Work With Charles Babbage

Among others, Ada was tutored by Mary Somerville, a science writer and mathematician who schooled her in mathematics. Through Somerville, Ada Lovelace met Charles Babbage. In the 1820s, Charles Babbage was working on a machine called a “difference engine.” This was a mechanical device that performed mathematical calculations using cogwheels and gears.

Babbage showed Ada Lovelace a model of his difference engine, although he failed to complete its construction. She was just 17 at the time and became intrigued by the machine. Babbage followed up with a more complex “analytical engine” design that, again, was not fully built.

Meanwhile, marriage (her spouse was Lord William King, who later became Earl of Lovelace) and motherhood occupied Lovelace’s time, and she didn’t get back to mathematics until the early 1840s.

Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage

Her Work as an Early Programming Theorist

An Italian engineer named Luigi Menabrea had written an article about Babbage’s analytical engine. In 1843, Lovelace translated the article into English (she was an accomplished linguist on top of her other skills). She added her own comprehensive notes to the publication that were three times longer than the original paper. Her comments show she was about a century ahead of her time in seeing the potential for computers.

She saw the possibility of such machines being put to use in fields well beyond calculations, including music composition. She predicted the use of code so the machine could deal with symbols and letters. She described a process called looping that is used by software engineers today.

An Example of Ada Lovelace's Notes

An Example of Ada Lovelace's Notes

The folks at The Computer History Museum write that “The idea of a machine that could manipulate symbols in accordance with rules and that numbers could represent entities other than quantity mark the fundamental transition from calculation to computation. Ada was the first to explicitly articulate this notion and in this she appears to have seen further than Babbage.”

She also wrote that complex mathematical sequences called Bernoulli numbers could be calculated by the analytical engine. Some historians of science say this is evidence of the first algorithm.

She wasn’t shy about her accomplishments, writing “Owing to some peculiarity in my nervous system, I have perceptions of some things, which no one else has . . . and intuitive perception of . . . things hidden from eyes, ears, and ordinary senses . . .”

But Ada Lovelace was theorizing about possibilities for which the technologies to implement them did not yet exist. As a result, her incredible insights went largely unnoticed at the time. As Biography.com comments, “Ada’s contributions to the field of computer science were not discovered until the 1950s.”

Ada Lovelace's Death

In 1843, Ada Lovelace wrote to Charles Babbage that “Before ten years are over, the Devil’s in it if I haven’t sucked out some of the life-blood from the mysteries of this universe, in a way that no purely mortal lips or brains could do.”

She almost completed that decade, but became seriously ill. While confined to bed, Charles Dickens went to visit her, and at her request, read a passage from his book Dombey and Son. It was the scene in which six-year-old Paul Dombey dies. Three months later, in November 1852, Ada Lovelace died of cancer. She was 36, the same age her father was when he died. She was placed in the Byron family tomb next to her father at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.

A Memorial of Ada Lovelace

A Memorial of Ada Lovelace

Bonus Factoids

  • Ada Lovelace developed a problem with gambling. She tried to work out a mathematical formula to predict the winners of horse races. Such a task, as many others have discovered, proved futile, and she lost so much money she had to pawn the family’s diamonds.
  • At the age of 12, Ada worked diligently on a project she called flyology. She studied bird anatomy and researched various materials from which wings could be made. She envisaged a contraption powered by steam. It did not and could not fly.
  • She looked at one portrait of herself and joked that her jaw was so big the word “mathematics” could be written on it.
  • The United States Department of Defense developed a new computer language in 1980 and named it Ada.

Sources

  • “Charles Babbage (1791–1871).” BBC History, undated.
  • “Ada Lovelace.” Computer History Museum, undated.
  • “Countess of Lovelace Augusta Ada King.” Todayinscience.com, undated.
  • “Lovelace’s Remarkable Story to Be Celebrated at the Science Museum.” Science Museum (U.K.), October 10, 2015.
  • “Ada Lovelace.” Biography.com, February 24, 2020.
  • “10 Things You May Not Know About Ada Lovelace.” Christopher Klein, History.com, August 22, 2018.
  • “Ada Lovelace: A Visionary of Computing.” James Essinger, BBC History Extra, October 8, 2019.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 12, 2020:

Rupert, such is life at an earlym age. We were influenced by those we associated with if fortune was favorable or note. Ada, as we see was indoctrinated in math and computer. That nearly lead her to become an aviation egineer. I reason she must be a first in this other than the Wright Brothers. Thanks for sharing.

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