Ada Lovelace (1815 -1852) was born Augusta Ada Byron, the only legitimate child of Annabella Milbanke and the poet Lord Byron. Her mother, Lady Byron, had mathematical training (Byron called her his ‘Princess of Parallelograms’) and insisted that Ada, who was tutored privately, study mathematics too - an unusual education for a woman.
In the early nineteenth century there were no “professional” scientists (indeed, the word “scientist” was only coined by William Whewell in 1836) but the participation of noblewomen in intellectual pursuits was not widely encouraged.
One of the gentlemanly scientists of the era was to become Ada’s lifelong friend. Charles Babbage, Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge, was known as the inventor of the Difference Engine, an elaborate calculating machine that operated by the method of finite differences.
Ada first met Babbage when she was seventeen, shortly after her right royal coming out party. She went, along with her mother, to see what she called his “thinking machine” a portion of his difference engine on display in his drawing room. An onlooker reported of the event:
“While other visitors gazed on the workings of this beautiful instrument with the sort of expression, I dare say the sort feeling, that some savages are said to have shown on first seeing a looking glass or hearing a gun, Miss Byron, young as she was, understood its working, and saw the great beauty of the invention.”
This was the sort of mathematical adventure that Ada was looking for. She had quickly exhausted the expertise of her tutors and university was not open to women in those days.
In 1842, an Italian mathematician, Louis Menebrea, published a memoir in French on the subject of the Analytical Engine. Babbage enlisted Ada as translator for the memoir, and during a nine-month period in 1842-43, she worked feverishly on the article and a set of notes she appended to it. These are the source of her enduring fame. The notes included the first published description of a stepwise sequence of operations for solving certain mathematical problems and Ada is often referred to as ‘the first programmer’.
Perhaps more importantly, the article contained statements by Ada that from a modern perspective are visionary. Ada called herself “an Analyst (& Metaphysician),” and the combination was put to use in the notes. She understood the plans for the device as well as Babbage but was better at articulating its promise. She rightly saw it as what we would call a general-purpose computer. Her notes anticipated future developments, including computer-generated music. She speculated that the Engine ‘might act upon other things besides number… the Engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent’. The idea of a machine that could manipulate symbols in accordance with rules and that number could represent entities other than quantity mark the fundamental transition from calculation to computation. Ada was the first to explicitly articulate this notion and in this she appears to have seen further than Babbage. She has been referred to as ‘prophet of the computer age’ and ‘the Founder of Scientific Computing’. Certainly she was the first to express the potential for computers outside mathematics.
Ada died aged 36 on 27th November 1852 from a mix of cancer and the side effects of blood letting.
The Analytical Engine remained a vision, until Ada’s notes became one of the critical documents to inspire Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computers in the 1940s.
Her contributions to science were resurrected only recently. Her thwarted potential, and her passion and vision for technology, have made her a powerful symbol for modern women in technology.
About Ada Lovelace Day
Ada Lovelace Day was founded by Suw Charman-Anderson and aims to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire. This international day of celebration helps people learn about the achievements of women in STEM, inspiring others and creating new role models for young and old alike.
Charman-Anderson said that Ada’s story resonates “because there are still people who seek to discredit her achievements. It is something that many women working in tech are only too familiar with. We can look at Ada and recognize that our own challenges are similar to hers, and her achievements are the sorts of things that we strive towards.”
The inspiration for Ada Lovelace Day came from psychologist Penelope Lockwood, who carried out a study which found that women need to see female role models more than men need to see male role models. “Outstanding women can function as inspirational examples of success,” she said, “illustrating the kinds of achievements that are possible for women around them. They demonstrate that it is possible to overcome traditional gender barriers, indicating to other women that high levels of success are indeed attainable.”
[x x x x]