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Count Lovelace, the mother of the computer program

Ian Smith
Who would have thought that the first person to envision a computer program would be the daughter of Lord Byron? Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, was born in London on December 10th, 1815. A child prodigy, she showed an exceptional talent for mathematics and along with Charles Babbage, is often credited with coming up with the concept of a programmable computer.
Portrait of Ada by British painter Margaret Sarah Carpenter (1836)

Portrait of Ada by British painter Margaret Sarah Carpenter (1836)

Ada’s childhood was chaotic and unusual. The daughter of a prominent, yet, crazed, poet, Lord George Gordon Byron, and caring mother Lady Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron. Her father was disappointed by the birth of a girl, and often showed an erratic and unpredictable temper, as well as adulterous behavior.
Ada Byron at age four, from a miniature in a locket sent to Lord Byron by his sister.

Ada Byron at age four, from a miniature in a locket that was sent to Lord Byron by his sister.

Throughout her childhood, Ada would suffer various health issues like measles, headaches, and walking problems. Worried that Ada would inherit her father’s insanity, Lady Milbanke would perhaps be too overprotective during her daughter’s upbringing, going so far as to move her out of their house in London. She never saw her father and he died when Ada was 8 years old.

Ada Byron, age 17

Ada Byron, age 17

To thwart Lord Byron’s influence over Ada, her mother kept encouraging her to study mathematics, logic, and science, just like the Lady herself, who was also adept at mathematics. In February 1828, Ada commenced in a youthful attempt at flying. The flying invention was intended to carry the pilot on its back. Her first step was to construct wings, and the procedure of construction was highly methodical and thoughtful for such a young age, considering various materials like wires, feathers, paper, and silk, and even integrating steam into the invention.

Often surrounded by English noblemen and famous people because of her own nobility and reputation, she socialized with many interesting characters such as Michael Faraday and Charles Dickens. She was introduced into court at age 17 and married William, 8th Baron King, in 1835, becoming Lady King and afterward taking the title Countess of Lovelace. Her husband was very supportive of Ada’s love for science. They had three children: Byron, Anne Isabella, and Ralph Gordon.

Watercolor portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace

Watercolor portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace

Her education was mostly private tutoring, and her mother would often recruit adept math teachers and scholars. William Frend, William King, Mary Somerville (a Scottish astronomer and mathematician who was one of the first women to be admitted into the Royal Astronomical Society), as well as other mathematicians were at her mother’s disposal in her quest to give Ada a proper education.

She began studying advanced mathematics at the University of London with professor Augustus de Moran. It was not usual for a woman to be schooled like Ada, since most girls from that era were taught and prepared for motherly tasks and obligations, as opposed to mathematics and science.

She first met Charles Babbage in 1833 through Mary Somerville. Charles Babbage was her mentor and was also an inventor, philosopher, mechanical engineer, and the two would become friends. Ada was fascinated by Babbage’s ideas. He is known as the father of the computer, and he invented a machine which was meant to perform mathematical calculations.

Daguerreotype of Charles Babbage

Daguerreotype of Charles Babbage

She had a chance to look at the so called “difference engine” prior its completion and was captivated by it. At a dinner party, she heard about Babbage’s ideas for a new calculating engine dubbed “The Analytical Engine”, which used punch cards as a method of input and output. He asked the question, what if a calculating engine could not only foresee but could act on that foresight? Ada was intrigued by the “universality of his ideas” and this would cause a spark of new and unusual concepts.

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After becoming his protégé, she translated an article on Babbage’s analytical engine formerly written by Italian engineer Luigi Federico Menabrea, intended for use in a Swiss journal. While translating it, she took the liberty of adding her own notes and thoughts, which ended up being three times bigger than the article itself, using only the initials “A.A.L.” in the publication.
The Science Museum's Difference Engine No. 2, built from Babbage's design

The Science Museum’s Difference Engine No. 2, built from Babbage’s design. Photo Credit

Her notes described the use of codes in handling letters, symbols, and numbers, theorizing methods that make the engine repeat a series of instructions, a process that is known today as “looping”. It is this work that made Ada responsible for the first computer algorithm.
Part of w:Charles Babbage's Difference Engine No. 1, as assembled in 1833, exhibited 1862, and later in the South Kensington Museum.

A part of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 1. Assembled in 1833.

She wrote: “…that 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… Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of [mathematical] expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.

Diagram of an algorithm for the Analytical Engine for the computation of Bernoulli numbers, from Sketch of The Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage by Luigi Menabrea with notes by Ada Lovelace

Diagram of the Analytical Engine’s algorithm for the musical note G, with Ada’s notes. Taken from Babbage’s Sketch of The Analytical Engine Invented by Luigi Menabrea

She actually foresaw that the machine could translate various pieces of content like music, pictures, texts and symbols, into a final digital form. A blueprint of computing and marvel of mathematics. She dubbed her approach “poetic science”, as a symbolic marriage of her father’s poetic imagination and her mother’s logic and nerve for number crunching.

Sadly, her work garnered little attention while she was alive and she suffered serious health problems with asthma and had episodes of hallucinations and mood swings. Reportedly, Charles Dickens read to her while she was bedridden. She died from uterine cancer on November 27, 1852, in London. She was buried next to her father in Nottingham, England.

Ada Lovelace at a piano in 1852 by Henry Phillips. While she was in great pain at the time, she sat for the painting as Phillips' father, Thomas Phillips, had painted Ada's father, Lord Byron.

Ada Lovelace at a piano in 1852 by Henry Phillips whose father, Thomas Philips, painted Lord Byron. She was in great pain at the time, but she sat for the painting.

Although her work gained respect posthumously, reintroduced by B.V. Bowden who published them in Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines in 1953. A computer language was named after her in the 1980s by the US Department of Defence. Ada Lovelace gained a following in the digital age and is now remembered as a key figure in computing.