Ada Lovelace, the computing pioneer

To contine our celebration of International Women's Day, we look at Ada Lovelace. A visionary whose brilliant mind identified the potential of computers a century before the digital age.

 
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 Ada Lovelace, the computing pioneer
Babbage was so impressed by Ada’s brilliant mathematical mind that he called her the ‘Enchantress of Numbers'. © Getty Images

In an age where women of a certain class were encouraged to become familiar with the arts, literature and perhaps a language or two, Ada Lovelace, who was born in London on 10 December 1815, had a remarkable start in life. Her mother, Lady Anne Isabella Milbanke, had studied science, philosophy and, most unusually for a woman, mathematics – and she wanted the same for her daughter. She was also determined that Ada would not follow in her father’s footsteps – he was the notoriously debauched poet Lord Byron.

Ada Lovelace was Byron’s only legitimate child. His marriage to Ada’s mother was brief and unhappy. Within weeks of Ada’s birth, Anne, sick of Byron’s drinking, gambling and incestuous affair with his half-sister, left him. A few months later, Byron quit England, and Ada never saw her father again. He died in Greece in 1824 when Ada was eight years old.

From an early age, Ada loved machines and spent hours poring over diagrams of new inventions and dreaming up her own. Ada’s preoccupation was encouraged by Lady Byron who, as an aristocrat, had the means to arrange a series of teachers to provide a first-class education with an emphasis on science and mathematics.

Pure Logic

Lady Byron’s motivation wasn’t entirely focused on expanding Ada’s mind – she feared that Ada may have inherited her father’s poetic madness and rationalised that, by bringing his daughter up in a world of pure logic and reason, it would instill some mental discipline. Although she didn’t stop Ada reading her father’s poetry, Lady Byron was relieved that her daughter had
no real interest in it. 

One of Ada’s illustrious tutors was Mary Somerville, the Scottish astronomer and mathematician who was one of the first women to be admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society. It was Somerville who introduced Ada to Charles Babbage, professor of mathematics at Cambridge. Ada was 17 and Babbage was 42. It was a friendship that would change Ada’s life. Babbage had earlier invented the ‘Difference Engine’ – an enormous calculating machine designed to automatically produce error-free mathematical tables, which later led him to be dubbed the ‘father of the computer’. 

Captivated

When Lady Byron invited him over to show a model of his creation to her friends, Ada was captivated and he was bowled over by her precocious intellect. In her, he’d found a passionate supporter and confidante – in him, she’d found a mentor. 

As he went on to develop his next project, a theoretical computer he called the ‘Analytical Engine’, they corresponded regularly. As well as a shared passion for numbers, their affectionate, lifelong relationship was also due to the fact that Babbage had previously lost a much beloved daughter, while Ada had longed for a father figure since childhood. 

After becoming Babbage’s protégée, Ada (now the Countess of Lovelace) was tasked with translating an article about the Analytical Engine, written by Italian engineer Luigi Menabrea. She used this as an opportunity to do much more than just translate. She added insightful notes, such as outlining how to use the Engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers (named after Swiss maths whizz Jakob Bernoulli, 1655-1705, who had worked out that a sequence of rational numbers could create a formula to solve problems). This is considered to be the first machine-generated algorithm, and therefore, the first computer program. 

Lost in translation

The finished piece, Notes by the Translator… Sketch of the Analytical Engine was three times as long as the original paper. It was published in 1843, and demonstrated that while Lovelace understood the plans for the device as well as Babbage, she realised its potential much better than he did.

Babbage believed that the use of his machine was confined to numerical calculations, while Ada realised that it could also manipulate symbols. This would theoretically enable the Analytical Engine (a full version was never built) to take on complex tasks and produce an answer that had not been pre-programmed into it. She also mused that any piece of content – including music, text, pictures and sounds – could be translated to digital form and manipulated.

It was as if her analytical mind was given wings by a creative instinct – she was indeed her father’s daughter. She wrote: “The Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.”

This was heady stuff. Her ideas were so far ahead of their time that it would take another 100 years and Alan Turing to recognise the significance of her work. During World War II, as he was working at Bletchley Park on decoding German communications, Turing discovered Ada’s translation. For him, these were critical documents that helped to shape his thinking and crack the Enigma Code.

As the field of computer science dawned in the 1950s, Lovelace gained a new following after her notes were republished in BV Bowden’s 1953 book Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines. In 1979, a computer programming language, developed by the US Department of Defense, was named ‘Ada’ in her honour.

Lovelace had a short life. She suffered from uterine cancer and passed away on 27 November 1852. At her request, she was buried in the Byron family vault inside the Church of St Mary Magdalene, Hucknall. Her coffin was placed side-by-side with that of the father she never knew. She was just 36 – the same age as Lord Byron when he died.

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