Acclaimed as a mathematical genius, Ada Lovelace is said to have understood the potential of the first computer blueprints better than their inventor. A serendipitous friendship with the mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer Charles Babbage brought her in contact with his early ideas for mechanical calculators and a preliminary prototype for a general-purpose computer.
Her writing on this subject is widely considered seminal and includes the first reported example of an algorithm written specifically for a computer. Although not without her detractors, these contributions earnt her reputation as “the first computer programmer”.
Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron, the only legitimate offspring of the brief marriage between the poet Lord Byron (George Gordon Byron) and his “Princess of parallelograms”, the mathematician Annabella Milbanke (Anne Isabella Milbanke, later known as Lady Byron). On the acrimonious disintegration of their marriage, Lady Byron returned to her parents’ home bringing her five-week old daughter with her. Soon after, Lord Byron left England for the Mediterranean and never saw his daughter again, dying abroad when she was 8 years old.
Lovelace was also a descendent of the extinct line of Barons Lovelace, which was revived a few years after her marriage in 1835 to William King-Noel, with whom she had three children. In 1838 King-Noel was made 1st Earl of Lovelace, Viscount of Ockham, making her Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, from which she has become known as Ada Lovelace.
Not only was Lady Byron unusual in successfully retaining custody of her daughter but she also ensured that Lovelace benefited from the best tutors, particularly in maths and science. Her efforts were in part motivated by a desire to steer her daughter away from nurturing any characteristics potentially inherited from her father, whose hot-headed temperament she perceived as his madness.
In any case, Lovelace thrived on the academic focus of her upbringing, demonstrating a particular flair for mathematics and science, as well as metaphysics and other subjects. What might be described as her early work includes a book she wrote aged 12 called Flyology, in which she recorded studies of the anatomical proportions of birds and the properties of different artificial wing materials during her own efforts to fly.
When Ada met Charles
Among her many influential tutors was the mathematician and astronomer Mary Somerville, who introduced her to the 42-year old widower Charles Babbage when she was 17. The next day, Lovelace and her mother, Lady Byron, visited Babbage to see an early prototype of his difference engine, a mechanical construct designed to calculate logarithms and trigonometric functions using what is known as the “finite difference” technique.
At the time tables of this kind of polynomial function could only be obtained laboriously by hand, and were prone to errors that then propagated through calculations where they were used. Babbage’s ideas for an error-proof machine to calculate these values attracted investments from the UK government to the tune of £17,000 in total, equivalent to well over a million pounds in today’s money.
The difference engine also sparked intense interest from Lovelace and a long-lasting relationship of mutual esteem ensued. Babbage dubbed Lovelace his “Enchantress of numbers” and they exchanged ideas on the difference engine and other mathematical endeavours for the next twenty years.
Unfortunately, the difference engine would never make it past the stage of preliminary prototypes, suffering in part from the cost of the many high specification components required, as well as Babbage’s shifting interests, which moved on to an even more powerful calculating machine – the analytical engine.
Replete with an arithmetic logic unit, conditional branching and loops, and an integrated memory, the analytical machine meets the criteria for a computationally universal device as outlined by Alan Turing a hundred years later. It was not made in Babbage’s time either but the logical structure of its design was shared by later electronic computers at the birth of the digital age. In fact, it was so far ahead of its time few could really comprehend its capabilities, and here Lovelace played a crucial role.
As part of his efforts to publicise the ideas behind his analytical engine, Babbage gave a seminar at the University of Turin, which was later written up as a paper in French by the young Italian engineer Luigi Menebrea. Lovelace then translated the paper into English, and expanded on the ideas until her own manuscript, published in 1843, was triple the length of the original.
A key insight she espouses in her notes is the recognition that the machine manipulated numbers as abstract quantities, so that the analytical engine “might act upon other things besides number”.
In this way Lovelace wrote of the analytical engine’s potential beyond a mere calculator, a uniquely visionary perception of the device that appears to overshoot even Babbage’s foresight for the uses of his own invention. Among the numerous appendices of her paper she included an algorithm in appendix G for finding Bernoulli numbers, which is widely acclaimed as the first ever computer algorithm.
Lovelace impressed many with her talents during her lifetime, despite dying tragically young aged just 36 of uterine cancer. Cambridge scholar and mathematician Augustus De Morgan, who tutored her in the early 1840s, wrote to her mother saying, “Had any young [male] beginner, about to go to Cambridge, shewn the same power[s], I should have prophesied … that they would have certainly made him an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first rate eminence.”
Yet despite her apparent achievements, recognition of her role as one of the founders of modern computing has been controversial. Many have attributed this reluctance to afford her credit as a symptom of gender prejudices. As a result, in the UK the second Tuesday of October each year is celebrated as Ada Lovelace Day to commemorate not only her achievements, but also those of the many other female figures in science, technology engineering and mathematics who have lacked due recognition over the years. Subsequent computing developments also take her name.
Full name: Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace
Born: 10 December 1815, Piccadilly Terrace, Middlesex [now in London], England
Died: 27 November 1852, Marylebone, London
Mathematician famous for her work with mechanical engineer Charles Babbage and writing the first computer program