What if I told you the world’s “first computer programmer” was born over two hundred years ago? And, what if that programmer was a she. Lady Ada Lovelace was her name — and her genius was nearly lost to history. Daughter to the famous Romantic poet Lord Byron, Ada was almost relegated as a footnote in her father’s biography.
In the nineteenth century, at the height of the industrial revolution, she was pushed into the male dominion of mathematics and science by her zealot mother. Mentored by the “father of the computer,” she emerged as a woman far ahead of her time in her ability to see what could be.
Not your typical aristocratic lady, part of Ada’s story holds a shadowy secret. And, on her deathbed, her last wish speaks volumes. Today on Biographics we explore the “Enchantress of Number,” Ada Lovelace.
Ada Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron in London on December 10, 1815 to the philandering Romantic poet Lord Byron and strictly religious Annabella Milbanke. Ada was Lord Byron’s only legitimate child.
Lord and Lady Byron were members of the high British society. Beyond social status, they shared virtually nothing in common. Annabella was analytical and conformist while Lord Byron cared little for numbers and logic. True, he was a celebrated and adored poet, yet his behavior raised more than a few eyebrows. He was known to drink from a human skull, own a pet bear, and engage in numerous love affairs with both men and women. One notorious scandal involved an affair with his own half-sister. A scorned lover once said of Lord Byron, he was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”
Not surprisingly, Annabella and Lord Byron’s marriage did not last beyond a year. In a contemptuous split when Ada was only five weeks old, Lord Byron left the home. He wrote of this parting, “Is thy face like thy mother’s my fair child! ADA! sole daughter of my house and heart?” Deeply bitter and resentful, Lady Annabella covered his portrait with a large curtain and forbade Ada from ever looking at it. Four months after Lord Byron left his infant daughter he left England for good, never to return. When Ada was eight years old, he died of an illness in Greece while fighting in the war of independence. He was 36 years old. Although Ada never met her father, she remained fascinated with him and his poetry over the course of her life.
Annabella was determined to steer her daughter away from developing her father’s “volatile poetic insanity” as she called it. She truly believed Lord Byron was mentally ill. Almost to the brink of fanaticism, Annabella saw to it that Ada received an education rigorous in mathematics and science. This was a rather unusual course of study for girls in British Victorian society even if Annabella herself was gifted in math. Byron referred to her as the “Princess of Parallelograms.” Popular opinion of the time favored one of Ada’s later tutors and brilliant mathematician, Augustus De Morgan, who believed women were incapable of excelling in the discipline. On the one hand, De Morgan acknowledged Ada’s abilities yet in a letter to her mother he wrote, “The very great tension of mind which they require is beyond the strength of a woman’s physical power of application.” Basically meaning, women were incapable because they were not as strong as men. Ada would prove that theory wrong.
As a young girl and into her teen years Ada was mostly isolated and did not spend a great deal of time with her mother. Still, Annabella was committed to her daughter’s education and well-being. She employed some of the greatest intellectual minds to tutor Ada including William King, a physician, William Frend, a social reformer and Mary Somerville, a Scottish astronomer, mathematician, and the first woman to be admitted into the Royal Astronomical Society. Ada and Somerville became close friends. In addition to algebra and geometry, Ada was taught lessons in history, literature, languages, geography, music, sewing and shorthand. These were all common subject areas but Ada’s mother planned something else that was far more bizarre. In an attempt to protect her daughter from developing her father’s impulses, Ada had to lie still for long periods of time. This was a lesson in self-control.
Ada was a bright student and showed promise for math and science. At the age of 12 after a year-long tour of Europe, she became obsessed with birds and flight. She researched what she referred to as ““flyology,” and imaginatively and methodically conceptualized a flying machine that could flap its wings. She wrote to her mother, “I have got a scheme, to make a thing in the form of a horse with a steam engine in the inside so contrived as to move an immense pair of wings, fixed on the outside of the horse, in such a manner as to carry it up into the air while a person sits on its back.” For her design, she considered the type of material — paper, silk, or feathers; navigational equipment — a compass; and steam — the source of power.
In between throwing herself into intellectual pursuits, Ada battled sickness. She frequently complained of headaches that obscured her vision. In 1829, she contracted measles, a common childhood affliction in the 1800s. The illness resulted in continuous bed rest for a year and she was disabled temporarily. In 1831 at the age of 16, she was finally able to walk again with the aid of crutches.
By the age of 17 Ada was feeling better and in keeping with the customs of her social class, she was presented at Court and became became a popular belle of the season — dancing and charming the attendees with her “brilliant mind.”
Spark of Genius
The industrial revolution was in full force by the time Ada was a teenager. It was a glorious time in history for the advancement of technology, and the perfect time for the inquisitive Ada to be coming of age. Make no mistake, she had the makings of a phenom (inherit abilities combined with rigorous education). She also had access to intellects, inventors, and influential people in power all because of her position in society. All of this was the perfect storm and meeting the famed inventor Charles Babbage was Ada’s lightning bolt.
In 1833, the seventeen year old Ada was among a select group to attend a coveted party hosted by Babbage, know by many today as the “father of the computer.” A guest wrote at the time, “One of the three qualifications for those who sought to be invited were intellect, beauty, or rank.” Ada fit right in.
At the soiree, Babbage unveiled a small part of his latest machine, a massive mechanical calculator known as the Difference Engine. The design for Babbage’s engine was revolutionary and fully constructed, would perform the work of an army of men crunching numbers. The machine would be powered by steam and would methodically perform complex calculations using only addition, by breaking it into smaller and smaller pieces — known as the method of finite differences. Then, it would print out the values into a table. Babbage’s machine had enormous potential in the nineteenth century since tables were used in many areas including navigation, astronomy and engineering. With this powerful calculator, human error would be erased. The engine was accurate within thirty one decimal places. To many guests that night Babbage’s invention was a hunk of metal and little more than a party favor. Not to Ada. De Morgan’s wife was there, and later wrote of the night, “When most of the guests looked on with the expression that savages show on seeing a looking glass, Miss Byron, young as she was, understood its working and saw the great beauty of the invention.” Babbage must have been impressed with Ada’s intellect and enthusiasm for the machine. From that night on, he remained her mentor and lifelong friend.
Babbage’s Difference Engine would not come to be after a disagreement with his engineer Joseph Clement. In those days, by law, the engineer owned the drawings and after their falling out, he could not get them back. Consequently, the British government also withdrew their funding for the project. This forced Babbage back to his original concept and he came up with an even better idea in 1834 — a far more complex machine he called the Analytical Engine.
The Analytical Engine is considered to be the world’s first programmable general-purpose computer. The basic structure of the engine is essentially the same as modern-day computers. Of course, Babbage’s machine would have been massive in scale. His entry-level machines would have been 45 feet long by 15 feet high but he talked about others, ten times the size. Nothing like it had ever been conceived or attempted to be built. In fact, in his lifetime, only a small trial engine was constructed. The Analytical Engine consisted of four components: the mill, which calculated units; the store, where the data was held for processing; and the reader and printer, the input and output devices. It was truly groundbreaking and would become Ada’s legacy.
Since Ada and Babbage’s first meeting, she became his protege; he was the teacher and she was the pupil. After Babbage showed her the plans for the Analytical Engine, she eagerly went on a tour of cotton mills in the north of England to see the most technologically advanced machine of the day — the Jacquard loom. The loom automated weaving of patterned silk and was controlled by a series of punch cards. It was fascinating and also controversial. A cotton mill with a Jacquard loom didn’t need skilled workers to weave intricate patterns. While groups such as the Luddites were protesting against these machines on account of replacing workers’ jobs, Ada was thinking something else entirely. She was deeply interested in the genius behind the punch cards and wanted to know how men were translating the complicated patterns into something simple the loom could understand. She saw the similarities to her beloved machine and later wrote, “The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.” For the next ten years, in between getting married and having three children, Ada focused all her energy into learning everything she could about the Analytical Engine. She wrote, “I think I am more determined than ever in my future plans, and I have quite made up my mind that nothing must be suffered to interfere with them. I intend to make such arrangements in town as will secure me a couple of hours daily (with very few exceptions) for my studies.”
After attending one of Babbage’s rare lectures, a military engineer and future Italian prime minister Luigi Menabrea wrote an impressive article, Sketch of the analytical engine invented by Charles Babbage Esquir. The paper was extremely detailed and mathematical — and it was also written in French. Ada decided to translate the paper and, since she knew the engine so well she would add her own thoughts to it. Many years later Babbage claimed to have told Ada to translate it and write her own account, and she responded by saying she hadn’t thought of it. Either way, she went about the task “like a devil possessed,” and when she was finished, her notes were three times as long as the original paper. Ada published her completed article in Scientific Memoirs, an English scientific journal published by Richard Taylor in 1843. Ada used only her initials “A.A.L.,” for Augusta Ada Lovelace, in the publication.
The part of the paper that gives weight to Ada’s credit as “first computer programmer” comes in section G. In it, Ada wrote of how the engine could be programmed with a code to calculate Bernoulli numbers — an algorithm to be carried out by a machine and thus the first computer program. Along with numbers, Ada described how codes could be created for the device to handle letters and symbols. She also theorized a method for the engine to repeat a series of instructions, or looping, a process computer programs use today. Ada also offered up other concepts in her paper, such as thoughts on artificial intelligence. She wrote, “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths.”
Her notes were significant in that they captured Ada’s vision for the Analytical Engine. And this is where she exceeds her mentor in understanding its full potential. Babbage’s historian wrote:
“Ada saw something that Babbage in some sense failed to see. In Babbage’s world his engines were bound by number…What Lovelace saw…was that number could represent entities other than quantity….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.”
Babbage was impressed with Ada and wrote, “The more I read your notes, the more surprised I am and regret not having earlier explored so rich a vein of the noblest metal.”
The next obvious step for the Analytical Engine would have been Babbage and Ada’s crowning moment, but it would not come to pass. Babbage was known to be a difficult man and he argued with politicians over his machines. The relationship with Parliament was particularly sour after Babbage failed to deliver his government funded, Difference Engine. The loss of money in those days was the equivalent of two Royal Navy warships. Ada had a plan to promote the engine but it was a sensitive subject — one she broached in a letter dated August 14, 1843. She asked Babbage if she could take over for him in promoting the Analytical Engine while he step aside and focus only on building it. She ended with, “You will wonder over this last query, but I strongly advise you not to reject it.” Babbage said no, refusing all of her conditions. He would not give up control and likely saw her asking, and presuming she could raise the money, as an audacious move.
Depending on the lens used to evaluate Ada, she can be hailed as a genius, a Victorian high society lady, a mother and wife, a gambler, adulteress, or drug addict. In truth, she may have been all of these things. She was like most of us — complex and contradictory.
As one would expect, Ada married and had children. She wed William King (not William King her tutor) in 1835 at the age of 19. He was 30. King seemed to be a “precise, conscientious and decent man, if somewhat stiff.” Three years after they tied the knot, King became the Earl of Lovelace and Ada took the title Countess of Lovelace. They had three children together: Byron, born in May 1836; Anne Isabella, called Annabella, born in September 1837; and Ralph Gordon, born in July 1839. For a time between 1835 and 1839 Ada focused most of energy on running the large household though she found time for horse riding, learning the harp and studying mathematics.
After their third child was born, Ada turned her attention back to maths and sciences, and was tutored by Augustus De Morgan. King was supportive. Socially, the couple had many prominent friends and acquaintances including the writer Charles Dickens.
In addition to headaches and measles suffered in childhood, Ada had recurrent health problems as an adult. After a bout of cholera in 1837 she had problems with asthma and her digestive system. She was prescribed the powerfully addictive painkiller laudanum, an opiate, to be taken with wine. The drug altered her personality and she reported hallucinations and mood swings.
In 1841, Ada and Medora Leigh, the daughter of Lord Byron’s half-sister Augusta Leigh, were told by Ada’s mother that Lord Byron was also Medora’s father. In February, Ada wrote to her mother: “I am not in the least astonished. In fact, you merely confirm what I have for years and years felt scarcely a doubt about, but should have considered it most improper in me to hint to you that I in any way suspected.” She did not blame the incestuous relationship on her father, but instead blamed Augusta Leigh: “I fear she is more inherently wicked than he ever was.” In the 1840s Ada flirted with scandals. First, from a relaxed relationship with men who were not her husband, which led to rumors she was having affairs. And then, an old family vice surfaced.
Ada’s life took a shadowy turn in 1851 when she began gambling on horses. Perhaps she was trying in vain to raise funds for her beloved Analytical Engine but no one really knows. Ada did not act alone, she was part of a gambling ring and in the spring season, her bets went horribly wrong. It has been said, Ada may have devised a mathematical scheme to predict the winning horses. If so, it didn’t work out well for her. In a failed bet at the Epsom Derby, Ada ended up owing the equivalent of roughly half a million pounds. To get out of her debt, she pawned some of the family jewels.
In 1852, Ada became gravely ill and took to her bed. She died painfully and slowly of uterine cancer on November 27, 1852 at the age of 36 — the exact age her father had been. A few months before she died, she made an unknown confession to her husband that made him leave her bedside. Her final wish was an act of defiance against her mother. Ada wanted to be buried next to the man who loomed large in her life but she never knew…her father. Ada’s body was taken miles away from her home to the Byron family vault inside the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in the small English town of Hucknall.
“That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal, as time will show.”
Ada’s contributions were buried for 100 years…discovered by a scientist, Alan Turing, in the 1940s during the Second World War. Turing was something of a kindred spirit who who was interested in the same things she was — machines that could act upon instruction. His work ultimately led the effort to build a machine with the code name, The Bombe that deciphered encrypted messages sent by Hitler’s armed forces. Turing’s work had begun before reading Ada’s notes on the Analytical Engine yet he was greatly influenced by them. She, along with Babbage, essentially paved the way for Turing who is considered today as the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence. Consequently, Ada’s notes surfaced for the world in B.V. Bowden’s book “Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines” in 1953.
Then, during the 1970s, the U.S. Department of Defense developed a high-order computer programming language to supersede the hundreds of different ones then in use by the military. It was named “Ada.” Ada is still used around the world today in the operation of real-time systems in the aviation, health care, transportation, financial, infrastructure and space industries.
In the present day, an international celebration takes place on the second Tuesday of October — Ada Lovelace Day. Founded in 2009 by Suw Charman-Anderson, it’s aim is to recognize the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). It also has a goal to increase the profile of women in STEM and, in doing so, create new role models who will encourage more girls into STEM careers.
Ada is everywhere in our modern digital world — immortalized on the internet forever in news articles, blog posts, memes, quotable quotes…there’s even some controversy of whether or not she deserves the claim “first computer programmer.” But, there is no denying her vision far surpassed any of her contemporaries, including Babbage. In all his 11 volumes of published writings he never wrote of the aspirations for computing like Ada had. “Those who have learned to walk on the threshold of the unknown worlds, by means of what are commonly termed par excellence the exact sciences, may then, with the fair white wings of imagination, hope to soar further into the unexplored amidst which we live.”