Ada Lovelace, First Computer Programmer
Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, was born on December 10, 1815. She was the daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron and his wife Anne Isabella Noel Byron. However, being Lord Byron’s only legitimate child is not her claim to fame.
Ada Lovelace was an extremely brilliant woman, who excelled in mathematics, and today she is widely acknowledged as the first computer programmer.
Ada’s parents separated when she was only five weeks old. Her father did not attempt to see his daughter thereafter, and she did not have a relationship with him. However, she was very conscious of being “Lord Byron’s Daughter”.
Byron died when she was eight years old and her mother remained the only influential figure in her life, although their relationship was not good. Ada was mainly left in her maternal grandmother’s care but her mother encouraged and promoted her curiosity in mathematics and logic, in order to keep her interests as separate from her father’s as possible because she worried about any “moral deviations” she may have inherited from him. Her childhood was mostly spent alone, with a very rigorous study schedule, as well as exercises in self-control. She learned history, literature, languages, mathematics, geography, art, chemistry and shorthand but she also had an ability for abstract thinking, combining poetry and science into what she called “poetical science”.
As a child, though often ill, Ada excelled in mathematics and logic. She developed an interest in invention; even trying to construct wings that would enable her to fly. To do this, she studied the anatomy of birds and even wrote a book called Flyology, complete with illustrations. She was twelve years old.
Ada remained extremely interested in scientific developments throughout her life, particularly in the workings of the brain – this perhaps due to her preoccupation with the “potential madness” that she her mother insisted she may have inherited from her father.
One of her tutors, Mary Sommerville, who was also a mathematician and astronomer, introduced her to Charles Babbage in 1833. This was the beginning of a lifelong collaboration, starting when Babbage invited her to see the prototype for his Difference Engine – an automatic mechanical calculator designed to tabulate polynomial functions. He then went on to design the Analytical Engine in 1937 – a proposed general-purpose computer with a logical structure essentially the same as that of current computer design.
In 1840, Charles Babbage gave a lecture on the Analytical Engine at the University of Turin and Luigi Manabrea an Italian engineer and future Italian prime minister transcribed that lecture into Italian.
Ada Lovelace was commissioned by Babbage’s friend in 1843, to translate this lecture and she spent almost a year doing so. But being Ada she did something more, she added her own more extensive notes to the translation, communicating with Babbage constantly and asking him questions as she progressed. In one of the notes (Note G) she described an algorithm for the Analytical Engine to compute Bernoulli’s numbers, the first known algorithm specifically tailored for a computer. It is because of this that she is often called the world’s first computer programmer.
While Babbage thought his engines were bound by numbers, Ada went further. She thought that the Engine might act upon entities other than numbers or quantity. If a machine could manipulate numbers and those numbers could represent other things such as letters or musical notes, then the machine could manipulate symbols based on certain rules. In short, she thought that if numbers could represent other symbols, the computer could do anything.
She noted: “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.”
Elaborating on this idea, she emphasized the Analytical Engine’s ability to be programmed to solve complex problems. Ada Lovelace imagined a machine that would go beyond number-crunching to universal “computing” and her conceptualization of computer programming anticipated modern computing by nearly 100 years
Because the analytical engine was never made, her programme was never tested. However, in 1953, her notes were republished in B.V. Bowden’s Faster than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines, along with Babbage’s design. The Analytical Engine is now widely acknowledged as an early model of a computer and her notes as the description of the computer and its software. Replicas of both of Charles Babbage’s engines are housed at the Science Museum in London, developed based completely on his design.
Ada married William, Eighth Baron King and became Lady King, in 1835. Then, because she was a descendant of the extinct Barons Lovelace, her husband was made Earl of Lovelace for his government work in 1838 – and she became Countess of Lovelace. They had three children together.
Ada also had a love of gambling, for which she formed a syndicate with her male friends. It is rumoured that she lost GBP 3,000 on horses in the 1840s. In 1951, she attempted to create a mathematical model for large bets, but this failed drastically and she had to admit everything to her husband. Ada Lovelace died on November 27, 1852 at the age of 38 from uterine cancer. It is said that she confessed something to her husband on August 30, 1852, which caused him to leave her – no one knows what she told him. She requested that she be buried next to her father Lord Byron at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.
Ada Lovelace was forgotten for a long time but in the age of electronic computers her name has again been at the forefront, as someone who foresaw what universal computing could be. Now a programming language is called Ada. Ada Lovelace day, which began in 2009, is celebrated on the second Tuesday of October to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and to create new role models for girls in these fields. Role models just like Ada King – Countess of Lovelace. Who knows what she might have achieved if she had not died young.