The Countess of Lovelace


The Hallowed Halls of Woman Crush Wednesday today garner a new occupant, in the form of one of history’s intriguing confluences of art and science.

Few genealogies intersect in a more intriguing way than that of Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician revered by computer programmers. Born on 10 December 1815 in London as Augusta Ada Byron, Lovelace entered the world with the title of Lady Byron. She was the only legitimate child of the famed poet George Gordon Byron, better known as Lord Byron. To this day, Byron is one of the most widely read Romantic poets, penning such verses as Don Juan, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and “She Walks in Beauty.”

Byron and his wife, Anne, separated just a month after Ada’s birth. Lord Byron holds a flamboyant reputation, fathering children with multiple women; Lady Byron viewed him as insane, a determination that molded the upbringing of Ada. Shortly after the separation, Byron left England, never to return. Consequently, Ada never knew her father, though she remained fascinated by him. (Aside: when Byron left, one of his endeavors included a fateful summer spent with another member of the WCW Halls, Mary Shelley, during an extraordinarily cold summer, thanks to a volcanic eruption. Byron’s suggestion of a horror writing contest led to the creation of Shelley’s Frankenstein.) 

Ada Byron at age four
Portrait of Lord Byron by Thomas Philips

Though Ada’s father was a notorious iconoclast, which was especially shocking in the early 19th century, her mother did not represent the paragon of maternalism. The responsibility of raising the young girl fell to her grandmother, Judith, as her mother took no interest in Ada. Anne called her daughter “it” and, when she was older, employed friends to watch Ada for signs of moral digression.

In an attempt to prevent Ada from falling into the perceived insanity and immorality of her father, Lady Byron foisted the study of mathematics upon Ada, hoping hard logic would ward off the ills of a creative life. The young child thrived in the world of maths, as the English would term it, and technology. At 12, Ada decided to pen a book about her attempts to fly, based on a study of avian anatomy and materials.

A series of tutors fostered a keen mathematical mind, including Augustus De Morgan, the first professor of mathematics at the University of London. He provided her with an education in advanced calculus, which played a large role in her scientific future. De Morgan wrote that Ada’s abilities might allow her to become “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence.” Her noble lineage and bright academic future allowed Ada to interact with some of the great luminaries of the region, including Michael Faraday and Charles Dickens.

Ada Byron at age 17

These two represent a fitting metaphor for Ada’s outlook on learning. Despite her mother’s best efforts, Ada’s interest in her father and his talents seeped into her rigorous science. She viewed the world through a lens of “poetical science.” Many mathematicians believe the world to be a rigid schematic of numbers and axioms. Ada injected poetry into maths. She wrote to De Morgan: 

“I may remark that the curious transformations many formulae can undergo, the unsuspected and to a beginner apparently impossible identity of forms exceedingly dissimilar at first sight, is I think one of the chief difficulties in the early part of mathematical studies. I am often reminded of certain sprites and fairies one reads of, who are at one’s elbows in one shape now, and the next minute in a form most dissimilar.”

Ada ascribed as much importance to metaphysics as mathematics, both being methods to explore “the unseen worlds around us.” She regarded intuition and imagination to be crucial in the development of mathematical novelties. This mindset later led to her most important contribution to the world of science.

A daguerreotype by Antoine Claudet, one of only two known photos of Ada Lovelace

In 1833, one of Ada’s tutors, Scottish scientist Mary Somerville introduced the young woman to mathematician Charles Babbage. He had recently developed a revolutionary machine, called the Difference Engine. This wonder was a mechanical calculator, a mathematical marvel far beyond the scope of anything created to that point. Babbage wanted to create a calculator that would take the human error out of astronomical navigation. The Difference Engine used polynomials to compute logarithms and trigonometric functions up to 20 decimal places.

Ada became instantly fascinated by the machine. She took every chance to work with Babbage, who noted the woman’s mathematical acuity. Babbage called Ada the “Enchantress of Number.” Work on the Difference Engine was partially financed by the English government, though funding eventually dried up and its completion was abandoned.

Babbage moved on to a new apparatus he called the Analytical Engine. This invention is considered to be the world’s first digital computer. Where the Difference Engine performed one type of operation, the Analytical Engine could be programmed to make all sorts of calculations. Using punchcards, Babbage could change the type of calculation done by the contraption. As with its predecessor, the scope and complexity of such a machine dwarfed anything else in the field. It could have employed a memory of 1,000 50-digit numbers, a capacity larger than any newer computer until 1960.

A part of the Analytical Engine made by Charles Babbage

The inner workings of the Analytical Engine can be daunting to contemporary thinkers. In the middle of the 19th century, even some of the greatest scientists could not grasp how it functioned. Enter Ada Lovelace.

Babbage gave a lecture on the machine in 1842. In the audience was Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea, who penned an article in his native tongue on the Analytical Engine. Ada was commissioned to translate the article into English. As part of the process, she added a series of notes to help explain the machine to the world. She seemed particularly suited to this task, as her mathematical and artistic sides could shine simultaneously. To display the complexity of the device, Ada’s notes were three times longer than the article itself.

Her notations also display the brilliance of “poetical science.” In some ways, Ada’s vision for the Analytical Engine was even greater than that of the creator. Babbage, undeniably a genius, crafted a machine to calculate; Ada realized the computer could do more.

A diagram from "Note G" in Lovelace's article on the Analytical Engine

In “note G” of the paper, Ada provided a method for using the Analytical Engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers. These famous numbers are a sequence of signed rational numbers that arise in the series expansions of trigonometric functions, discovered independently in the early 1700s by Jacob Bernoulli and Seki Takakazu. In an effort to explain the workings of the device, Ada had actually produced the first algorithm designed for processing on a computer.

For this reason, Ada Lovelace is often credited as the world’s first computer programmer.

She wrote, “[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…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.”

This notion clearly understands the potential of the computer beyond mere calculation. No one in the world had yet visualized such a future. The ideas described in Ada’s notes did not come to fruition for more than a century. In fact, Babbage and Lovelace were so far ahead of their time that the Analytical Engine could not really be constructed with contemporary methods and materials (a full version of the predecessor, the Difference Engine, was not constructed until 2002!).

Portrait of Ada by British painter Margaret Sarah Carpenter

Historian Doron Swade wrote on the importance of Ada’s algorithm:

“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. 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.”

Today, programmers recognize debt to Ada. The United States Department of Defense developed a coding language in the late 1970s that they called Ada. Many scientists celebrate Ada Lovelace Day on the second Tuesday of October (alas, Woman Crush Wednesday bylaws demand publication on Wednesday, not Tuesday, so we could not celebrate in writing).

Google Doodle for Ada Lovelace

In 1835, Ada married William, 8th Barron King. In 1838, her husband became the Earl of Lovelace, meaning she swapped Lady Byron for Countess of Lovelace. Colloquially, she became known as Ada Lovelace. The couple birthed three children. Ada named her sons after her father: Byron, born in 1836, and Ralph Gordon, born in 1839. Perhaps a bit was forgiven toward her mother, as well, as she dubbed her daughter Anne Isabella.

Unfortunately, we were probably robbed of more mathematical innovation from Ada Lovelace. Lord Byron died at the age of 36 in 1824. Ada tragically mirrored his early exit, dying at 36 in 1852 from uterine cancer. Her contributions continue to reverberate through the 21st century, however, as computers and algorithms play an increasingly prominent role in modern life.

She easily earns a seat in the pantheon of tremendous women in the Hallowed Halls of Woman Crush Wednesday.

Further Reading and Exploration

Ada Lovelace – Computer History Museum

How Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s Daughter, Became the World’s First Computer Programmer – The Marginalian

Ada Lovelace, the First Tech Visionary – The New Yorker

Ada Lovelace: Founder of Scientific Computing – UC San Diego

The Babbage Engines – Computer History Museum

Difference Engine – Encyclopedia Britannica

Analytical Engine – Encyclopedia Britannica

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