Friday, February 23, 2024

Ada Lovelace, Mother of Modern Computing

Frequently in science, there are those who work long and hard to reach a discovery. Great figures, who put their heart and their soul into uncovering the truth behind theories for the benefit of all of mankind. These individuals work genuinely and do not seek riches; only – at the very least – some recognition. Recognition that could lead to further funding, and yet more new discoveries, as is the spirit of science. Yet they are prevented from ever attaining such recognition by ruthless men who seek to keep the glory of a discovery to themselves, regardless of how little work they did themselves, and all too frequently the victims of this crime are women.

Women like Rosalind Franklin who took wonderful x-ray photographs of the double helix and played her part in uncovering the structure of DNA – yet was passed by because two men, Watson and Crick gained access to her work without her knowledge or consent. Each was awarded the Nobel prize, yet neither made any mention of Rosalind Franklin.

 To bring back some balance and address this issue, we tell the story of an enigmatic woman whose achievements are still being played down, by some, almost 153 years after her death.

Her elegance and her passion set her apart from all others – in a field which has come to be dominated by men. Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace (1815 – 1852) was not only an outstanding mathematician of her day, but accurately foresaw all that was to come in the world of computing. Working closely with Charles Babbage as he struggled with his visionary idea of a programmable computer, Ada made her mark by being able to express the potential of Babbage’s device far more eloquently than he – explaining with crystal clear insight that which he could not. By predicting the enormous variety of tasks that such a computer could be made to perform, she became the world’s first ever computer programmer.

Gazing upon her portrait, there is something enigmatic about Augusta Ada Byron that brings to mind the romance of the English regency period during which time, such great figures as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Walter Scott, and Beau Brummell were making their mark on the world. Indeed Ada Byron’s father was none other than the romantic poet Lord Byron, who has been described as both notorious and illustrious – and is certainly the most famous of the romantic poets.

Early Life

Daguerreotype – an early photographic technique image of Ada.

Ada’s parents were Lord Byron, and Anne Isabelle Milbanke. Sometime during the period

of their marriage in January of 1815, Byron came to face an extreme financial crisis, and began to exhibit strange behaviours – openly showing his hostility to whomever was unlucky enough to be nearby. The arrival of Ada seemed to blacken his mood and he suggested that

Lady Byron should return to her parents until he had sold their home in London, and alleviated the current crisis. Lady Byron could not believe the situation and decided that Byron had gone temporarily insane. She left, returning to her parents’ house with Ada – her worry for Byron gradually swinging towards concern for her newborn instead. Within a few months of Ada’s birth her mother and father were legally separated. Ironically, among the allegations thrown at him Byron was also rumoured to have fathered an illegitimate child with his half-sister whose name his daughter now bore, and who had been staying with him since originally coming to help Lady Byron. This obviously was another contributing factor to the split. Four months after the birth of his daughter, Byron left England for Europe – never to return or be allowed by Lady Byron to see his daughter again.

Faced with the aftermath of the disastrous relationship, Lady Byron worried desperately about her daughter and feared that Ada might be predispositioned towards the powerful mood swings of her father. To ensure that Ada never followed in her father’s poetic footsteps and knowing also of Lord Byron’s limitations in the world of mathematics – Ada’s mother took great pains to educate her in music and mathematics; subjects she herself had a great interest in. Although many have recently tried to portray Ada as being an incompetent mathematician in order to play down her role in computing to suit their own agendas – clearly Ada had been given rigorous teaching of the subject to the point where she was able to impress De Morgan, one of the celebrated mathematicians of the day. De Morgan was so impressed with Ada’s abilities, he wrote of her –

“Ada’s power of thinking from the beginning of the correspondence with her, has been utterly out of common way for any beginner, man or woman.”

Despite her mother’s best efforts, Ada never shied away from her poetic roots and was also a reluctant student of mathematics – much preferring geography. Even in mathematics, she wove metaphors and imagination into her work as much as possible. Things came to a head when her mother found out her feelings towards geography and had mathematics lessons replace her geography ones. Lady Byron had a reputation for extreme strictness when it came to Ada’s education, and arranged numerous tutors throughout her childhood and young adulthood. This stance, on the part of Lady Byron – and the resulting stress it caused her daughter – was almost certainly a contributing factor to Ada’s long running health problems.

Mr Babbage and his Difference Engine

Charles Babbage

On the 5 June 1833, when Ada was just 17 years old, she met Charles Babbage after being introduced to him through Mary Somerville, another great female scientist of the day. Upon hearing Babbage’s conjecture on the possibilities of a new calculating engine – “what if a calculating engine could not only foresee but could act on that foresight” – Ada was captivated and came to realise the universal applications that may be made possible using this new technology.

Within a short period of time Ada brought her mother to visit Babbage at his studio in London, to talk and to see for herself, his existing Difference Engine. Sophia Frend, who would later marry De Morgan, wrote that Ada was inspired by the beauty of the device and understood it’s working despite her young years. This began what was to prove a fruitful and working relationship – one which has had lasting implications for the rest of humanity.


While Babbage continued to work on his new Analytical Engine – at the expense of his still unfinished Difference Engine; Ada met another outstanding figure through Mary Somerville – William King, whom she eventually married on the 8th of July 1835. Three years later King was made an Earl, endowing Ada with the voluminous title of The Right Honourable Augusta Ada, Countess of Lovelace. While she had three children to her new husband; Byron, born on the 12th of May 1836, Annabella, born on the 22nd of September 1837 and Ralph Gordon, born on the 2nd of July 1839 – she never quite forgot the wonders of Babbage’s computational device and therefore took up the study of advanced mathematics in 1841, at the age of 26.


Almost ten years after their first encounter, Ada translated and then annotated the Italian Mathematician, Menabrea’s – Notions sur la machine analytique de Charles Babbage (1842). Babbage wrote in detail about how Ada had come to work on the translation of the book and also mentioned in passing, the extent of her theoretical work on programming:

“….also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble “

Within Ada’s annotations, the real gems are waiting – her numerous perspectives – so subtle yet powerful. Each filled with promise of the future, plotting out the exciting directions, which Babbage’s project might have taken had it been less troubled.

On regulation – “by means of punched cards, the most complicated patterns in the fabrication of brocaded stuffs.” She discusses the use of punched cards to store the instructions upon, just as one would use a disk in modern times. Ada goes on to highlight this as the differing feature between the two engines – “It is in this that the distinction between the two engines lies. Nothing of the sort exists in the Difference Engine.”

Babbage’s machine.

And foreshadowing the work of Alan Turing, a man who single-handedly designed the format and the theory behind multipurpose computers, almost 100 years later; Ada wrote – “again, [the Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine . . .” – meaning a computer can perform any task, which can be broken down into numerical calculations – progress has demonstrated that almost anything can be represented in this manner.

Even predicting musical applications for computers – “Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.” – in her own words hinting at, but unable to imagine – the world of digital music, MP3’s, MP3 players and live Internet feeds.

But this exciting new technology was perhaps already too far ahead of its time. Babbage had been too excited about the Analytical Engine to bother finishing the Difference Engine and this would later cause him problems among his sponsors. Ultimately it would take two world wars to motivate man to build computers, and then as a beast of necessity, to crack enemy codes – but not for passion or curiosity as had been the goals of Ada and Babbage.

Final Years

Tragically for Ada, her journey came to an end. She had developed uterine cancer and her health deteriorated. Despite her mother’s desperate attempts to prevent her daughter from becoming anything like Lord Byron, fate with its twisted sense of irony saw to it that Ada would die at the exact same age as her father, at 36 – and of the exact same cause; the practice of bloodletting as a cure for disease, popular at the time, did more harm than good.

Before her death Ada had become disturbed by the way her mother had controlled her life, by constantly steering her away from poetry, into mathematics and also preventing her from ever seeing her father. Their relationship thus became strained and before she died, Ada requested to be buried next to the father whom she had never met – and who had stated among his last words:

“Oh my poor dear child!
My dear Ada!
My God, could I but have seen her!”
Is thy face like thy mother’s, my fair child!
Ada! Sole daughter of my house and of my heart?
When last I saw thy young blue eyes they smiled’
And then we parted, – not as now we part,
but with a hope.
Lord Byron
From Childe Harold

Forward to Today

While history has been obscured by a great deal of confusion regarding the nature of Ada’s work – and many have tried to either play down her work or exaggerate it to suit their own agendas – what remains clear is that Ada was a visionary.

While undoubtedly Babbage, his sons and technicians may well all have understood the concepts of programming, they used this knowledge only as assistance for designing the hardware itself, and as such should be considered the first hardware designers.

Since Ada’s only concern was the Applications that could be run on Babbage’s hardware, and all her thought was focused in this area, it can rightfully be said that Ada was the first programmer. She was the first to consider the use of a programming language and the creation of new applications. The lasting impact of her work, will continue to have an effect upon our lives, our children’s lives, and so on… ad infinitum. Ada Lovelace will always be remembered for her passion – and as such her story will continue moulding the shape of things to come.

“We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves”

– Ada Lovelace describing the Analytical Engine in her annotations

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