Women in History—Ada Lovelace
A Pioneer's Early Years
Born December 10, 1815, Augusta Ada Brown, Ada Lovelace was the daughter of esteemed poet, Lord Byron. While he was married to Ada’s mother, their marriage was a contemptuous one. The couple separated a few weeks after Ada’s birth. Sometime later, he left England. That was the last time she saw her father after her parent’s divorce; she was only 8 when he passed away.
Ada was not raised in the traditional manner of an aristocrat, especially as a girl in the 1800s. With the urging of her mother, Ada’s tutors taught the girl both science and math. Subjects considered challenging were not your typical classes for females at that time. Her mother thought the rigors of the subjects might keep her daughter from falling prey to her father’s often moody and somewhat unpredictable temper. To help develop a sense of self-control, Ada was made to lie motionless for long time periods.
One of her instructors was William Frend, a clergyman, and later a radical social reformer; William King, the family’s physician; as well as Mary Somerville, one of few women at the time to be accepted by the Royal Astronomical Society.
Science, Math, and the Difference Engine
Ada met a man named Charles Babbage when she was 17. The two formed a close friendship, and while he was much older than Ada, his knowledge of mathematics, along with his inventions, fascinated her. As her mentor, it was due to Babbage that Ada came to study advanced mathematics at the University of London, under Professor Augustus de Morgan.
Babbage, who earned the moniker-father of the computer- invented a machine intended to perform calculations. He called the machine, the difference engine. Ada viewed and studied his invention before it was finished and was in awe. Babbage had also designed plans for another device, the analytical engine. More advanced than the difference engine, the analytical engine was created for more complicated, advanced calculations. These devices would transform into the modern day calculators and computers.
Ada was given the task of translating the writings of Luigi Federico Menabrea, an Italian engineer, on Babbage's analytical machine. The article was included in a Swiss journal. As she translated the document from the French version into English, she added her ideas for the machine. By the time she completed the translation, the notes she had made ended up nearly three times the length of the article she had set out to translate. Ada's translation and notes were published in 1843. She used her initials when her work was published.
As Ada wrote her notes, she explained how we could create codes to allow the device to manage letters, symbols, and numbers, Bernoulli numbers (these appear in expansions of trigonometry functions, used in number theory and analysis.)1 This code is said to be the first algorithm. In her works, she presented a theory that would allow the engine to replicate a designated set of instructions many times. This method would become the process called looping that is used in computer programs today. She also included many other advanced theories in the article.
In 1835, before her article reached publication, Ada married William King. Three years after, he became the Earl of Lovelace, and Ada adopted the title, Countess of Lovelace. The couple had three children and shared a love of horses.
The pair had two sons and a daughter.
- Byron King-Noel, the 12th Baron Wentworth was titled Viscount Ockham in May 1836. The oldest son of Ada and William reached the rank of Officer during his time with the Royal Navy. He deserted the military, returned to Britain and worked in the shipyards. Since his mother died before him, he inherited the barony of Wentworth from his grandmother. He died two years later at 26.
- Ralph King-Milbanke, the 2nd Earl of Lovelace, the second son of Ada and William, was born on July 2, 1839. Later he attended the University College, Oxford, but would not graduate. September 1, 1862, after the death of his older brother, Ralph became the 13th Baron Wentworth. He took little interest in the public life and pursued his own course. In 1898, he became the second Earl of Lovelace. On August 28, 1906, he died suddenly in Ockham Park.
Anne Blunt, 15th Baroness Wentworth, the only daughter of Ada and William, was born on September 22, 1837. She was known for most of her life as Lady Anne. On June 8, 1869, Lady Anne married Wilfred Scawen Blunt. The couple co-owned an Arabian horse empire. In fact, most Arabian purebred horses today, have lineage traced back to at least one Crabbet ancestor.2 Lady Anne was also the owner of a Stradivarius violin, which she had extensively refurbished in 1864. She sold it thirty years later. The Lady Blunt Stradivarius, as it is known today, is reportedly the most well-preserved Stradivarius of all time. In 2011, at a Japanese auction, the violin sold for an astounding world record high of $15.9 million U.S. dollars. After a rocky marriage, divorce, and alienation from her daughter, Lady Anne died on December 15, 1917.
In the 1840s, Lovelace developed a gambling habit, one that quickly turned into an addiction.3 Her love of chance forced Ada to pawn the Lovelace family's jewels. It has been said she once lost 3,200 pounds betting on horses at the Epsom Derby. There has even been speculation of a book that was shared weekly between Lovelace and Babbage, which most likely contained a program created to calculate horse-race results.
Until Her Death
It is believed that Lovelace met Charles Dickens through Charles Babbage, sometime during the 1830s. The novelist and the mathematician would meet with other friends for dinners together. In August 1852, Ada suffered from uterine cancer. The British author visited with his sick friend, and at her behest, read a popular scene from his 1848 novel, "Dombey and Son," where a child named Peter dies. Three months later, Ada died on November 27, 1852. Lovelace did not know her father but maintained a fascination throughout her life both him and his work. Before she died, she told people she wanted to be buried in the Byron family vault, which was inside the Church of St. Mary Magdalene. Her final resting place, side by side with her father, in the small English town of Hucknall. In an odd coincidence, both father and daughter were 36 years old when they passed.
The Legacy of a Mathematician and Pioneer
Lovelace's gifts to the computer science world went undiscovered. In the 1950s her writings were brought back into the spotlight. B.V. Bowden republished them in 1953, in his work "Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines."
Over the years, Ada received many posthumous honors. The most famous of those being in 1980, when the U.S. Department of Defense coined a newly developed computer language after her - "Ada."4
Every day, around the world, we take for granted the computers and smartphones we have use of today. To think that even as a child, Ada Lovelace had the forethought and capability not only to imagine but implement her designs, is unbelievable. A daunting task to most people in today's world, she understood what it would take to move the difference engine, and the analytical engine, into everyday use.
Ada Lovelace was a true visionary, in every aspect of the word's definition. Without her, our world of technology and computer science might be different than we know it.
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© 2017 Sherrie Weynand