Ada Lovelace is a name you’ve probably heard before, but you might not know why.
While it sounds like the name of a movie star (and in fact is largely an honourific), Ada is actually best known as the world’s earliest computer programmer as she was working on programming years before the invention of computers as we know them.
Now it’s time for all of us to find out more about exactly who Ada was.
An Unconventional Childhood
Born Augusta Ada Byron in 1815, the only legitimate daughter to the infamous Lord Byron (author of Don Juan, a book of erotic exploits), she was a disappointment to her father from the very second she was born. Certain that he was going to have a baby boy, the blow that he had a daughter may have been too much for him and he separated from Ada’s mother just a month after her birth. He left the country soon after and would die when his daughter was only eight years old. They never met.
Her mother meanwhile, was both controlling and distant. Lady Wentworth was rarely around, but constantly had her friends spy on Ada for “signs of moral deviation”. She was terrified her daughter might end up like her “mad” poet father and with the intention of steering her towards a rational mindset she encouraged Ada strongly in mathematics – an incredibly unusual pursuit for women of the time.
Her childhood was blighted by illnesses and at the age of eight she began suffering from severe headaches that would obscure her vision. Shortly afterwards she contracted the measles and was encouraged to spend long periods of time lying still with her eyes shut – an exercise in self-control.
Learn To Fly
Ada was an incredibly bright child, and while she took well to mathematics there was clearly something of her free-spirited father in her. At the age of twelve she became obsessed with the idea of being able to fly – but unlike most of us, who would simply day dream or draw pictures, she set to work making it a reality.
She studied the anatomy of birds in depth and built a number of prototypes of wings in different materials such as silk and paper. She even wrote and illustrated a book named Flyology, although her mother soon put an end to her fanciful work.
A Beautiful Mind
Ada had the best of teachers growing up – in particular famed astronomer Mary Somerville, one of the first women to be admitted into the Royal Astronomical Society. She was around 17 when her talents really began to emerge, and she was soon introduced to polymath Charles Babbage.
Ada met Babbage through Mary shortly after his prototype for the Difference Engine was completed. Her fascination in the machine led to Babbage dubbing her “The Enchantress of Number”, and he discussed with her his newest idea, the Analytical Engine. Although she wasn’t involved in the original ideas for these machines – often credited as the world’s first computers – she understood them in a unique way.
Her most well-known work, discovered over a century after her death, was in the translation of an Italian article about the proposed Analytical Engine. On top of the translation she added copious notes, making the article around three times longer than it should have been, but adding so much more value to the text.
She theorised that the engine would be able to repeat a set of instructions, using codes to handle letters and symbols. She saw far more possibilities in the invention than even Babbage had, claiming that it “might act upon other things beside number…the Engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent”. Even Babbage himself had only considered it to be a mathematical tool.
Included in her notes was an algorithim to be performed by the machine. This was the world’s first computer program, which she invented in the 1840’s!
Alongside Charles Babbage, Ada was friends with other great men of the time – Michael Faraday, who discovered the principles behind electromagnetic fields; author Charles Dickens; scientist Andrew Crosse; David Brewster, inventor of the kaleidoscope; and Charles Wheatstone, famed inventor of the stereoscope and English concertina.
The Search For Poetical Science
An almost perfect hybrid of rational mind and poetic insight, Ada saw the world in a different way to many others of her time. In her thirties, she wrote a letter to her mother reading “If you can’t give me poetry, can’t you give me poetical science?” Despite her mother’s strict instructions to stay away from all things artistic, Ada’s curiosity and free-spirited nature didn’t end with her experiments into human flight.
Even her descriptions of the Engine were laced with beautiful metaphors – “The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.” This poetic nature allowed her to see the Engine as more than a tool for calculations, predicating our uses of computers well over a century into the future.
Ada suffered in her life as a result of the institutional sexism of the time, but in giving Ada a head-start in maths her mother gave her a great gift. She was a charming figure in Court in her teens, impressing many people with her brilliant mind – but once married she dealt with the same fate as many women who spend most of their time with men, often accused of having affairs.
She developed a passion for gambling and worked on a calculation for betting success – in this she failed, and ended up thousands of pounds in debt to her syndicate of close male friends.
Sadly, she died of uterine cancer at the age of 36. The months she spent confined to bed must have been unbearable, as her mother took over control once more and forced religious penance on her. It’s thought that she confessed a secret to her husband while in her deathbed – although it’s unknown what this was, it was enough to drive him away, and she didn’t see him again.
She chose to be buried next to her absent father, who had also died at 36.
Ada was unlike any other woman of the time – at least, that we know of.
We know that the contributions of women to science and technology have long been systematically dismissed: it wasn’t until 1953 that her work was republished, and finally given the credit it deserved. But this vibrant, troubled, poetic woman could easily have faded into obscurity like so many others.
Thankfully we still know of her, and her remarkable legacy lives on as an inspiration to mathematicians and coders to this day – even our very own coding expert, Alex Hindley, who has immortalised Ada in this beautiful tattoo!
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