“That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal, as time will show.” — Ada Lovelace, 1815 – 1852
Born over 205 years ago in December of 1815, Ada Lovelace is arguably one of the most famous early women scientists. She has been credited as the likely creator of one of the first computer programs and was most certainly a creative visionary relating to the potential of computing machines. Ada had formidable intelligence, and she knew its power. Aside from earning her rightful place in computing history, though, Ada lived an incredibly fascinating life, including all the twists and turns of a romance novel. And oh, the cast of characters! As a bonus, this particular romance story is one that is hopelessly entangled with the early history of computing.
Ada’s parents were pretty much opposites in personality and were married for just a short time before her father left when Ada was only five weeks old. Her father was the famous poet Lord Byron, author of Don Juan, who was at very least considered to be wild and crazy for his time (he kept a tame bear in his college rooms at Cambridge!) and was considered by some, including Ada’s mother, to be insane. Scandal followed wherever he went, and he seemed to welcome it. Ada’s mother, Annabella Milbanke, was a highly educated mathematician and was a religious and proper woman. Lord Byron nicknamed her “Princess of Parallelograms.” Ada’s father died leading troops in the Greek war of independence despite having no military training when she was just eight years old. It seems her mother never forgave him, and bitterly struggled to keep her father’s wild influences far from Ada.
Ada led an isolated childhood in the company of governesses, tutors, and her cat, “Mrs. Puff.” One of Ada’s tutors was Mary Sommerville, a Scottish polymath and science writer who one of the first female members of the Royal Astronomical Society. In her obituary, Mary Sommerville was described as the “Queen of Science.” As a girl, Ada studied mathematics, including geometry and algebra, history, literature, French, geography, music, chemistry, sewing, and shorthand. She also was not short on imagination and combined her girlhood love of horses and engines to conceptualize the steam-driven flying horse.
Ada suffered and survived severe illnesses in her youth, including measles, and possibly encephalitis. Following the custom of the time for young women from “society,” Ada was presented to the court in London (this means she met the king, William Henry IV) when she was 17 years old, and spent the season there, socializing. In 1835, at the age of 20, she married William King, who was given the title Earl of Lovelace (based on her ancestral lineage) three years later, making her Lady Ada Lovelace.
Meant for Greatness
Mothered by the “Princess of Parallelograms” and tutored by the “Queen of Science,” Ada was well prepared to contribute groundbreaking ideas to the world. Mary Sommerville introduced 17-year-old Ada to Charles Babbage, whose oldest son was the same age as Ada. Babbage invited her and her mother back his house for a demonstration of his new invention, the “Difference Engine,” which is a hand-cranked 2-foot-high machine with 2000 brass parts, now part of the collection at the Science Museum in London. Babbage wasn’t the only prominent person with whom Ada crossed paths. Her social and educational circles also included the likes of Michael Faraday, Charles Dickens, Florence Nightingale, and Charles Wheatstone (the inventor of the first symmetrical encryption scheme in 1854), among other great thinkers.
Ada described her approach to thinking as “poetical science.” Her mother discouraged her from the “insane poetry” of her father, but she preferred the creative blend of imagination, science, and poetry. She had the insight to see that Babbage’s “Analytical Engine” (an advancement of his earlier “Difference Engine”) could be used for purposes beyond mathematical calculation, to compose complex music, and create graphics and that it would have both practical and scientific uses.
Babbage’s “Analytical Engine” supported a litany of possible mathematical operations, that could be completed in an arbitrarily programmed sequence. Importantly, he figured out how to control the computation steps using punched cards similar to those invented in 1801 by master weaver Joseph Marie Jacquard for specifying patterns of weaving on looms – some of the first programmable machines. The “Analytical Engine” remained theoretical only and has never been built.
Based upon the prolific correspondence between the two, Ada became something of a research assistant to Babbage, helping him with various projects and ideas. Babbage never wrote a formal paper about his invention, but he gave a talk about his “Analytical Engine” in Turin. A young engineer named Luigi Menabrea (a future prime minister of Italy) was in attendance and took detailed notes about the talk in French.
Ada later translated Menabrea’s notes from French into English for a British publication. At the end of the 25-page published translation, Ada added 40 pages of prolific notes with her thoughts in a section titled “Notes by the Translator.” In an attempt to explain the full potential of the “Analytical Engine,” she worked out a set of instructions to calculate Bernoulli’s numbers, which she included in the paper, which she signed simply “A.L.L..” It is this set of instructions widely considered to be the first computer program – written well before computers even existed.
Computer historian Doran Swade remarked of Ada Lovelace:
“Ada saw something that Babbage, in some sense, failed to see. In Babbage’s world, his engines were bound by number…What Lovelace saw—what Ada Byron saw—was that number could represent entities other than quantity. So once you had a machine for manipulating numbers, if those numbers represented other things, letters, musical notes, then the machine could manipulate symbols of which number was one instance, according to rules. It is this fundamental transition from a machine which is a number cruncher to a machine for manipulating symbols according to rules that is the fundamental transition from calculation to computation—to general-purpose computation—and looking back from the present high ground of modern computing, if we are looking and sifting history for that transition, then that transition was made explicitly by Ada in that 1843 paper.”
It is not just Ada’s foresight about computing that impresses. Her natural tendency towards collaboration and her ability to build off of the work of not just Babbage, but other visionaries is commendable. No idea, no invention, no scientific breakthrough, no problem gets solved in a vacuum. It takes a team of people working together with creative vision and a common goal to solve the hardest challenges.