Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace was born Augusta Byron, the only legitimate child of celebrated poet George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron and his wife, intellectual prodigy and heiress Anne Isabella Milbanke, on 10 December 1815. Lord Byron christened his daughter after his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, and nicknamed her Ada.

Miniature_of_Ada_Byron age 4 

Lord Byron would only see his daughter for the first few weeks of her life. Shortly after Ada turned one month old, Byron asked his wife to return to her parents’ home at Kirkby Mallory and take the baby with her. On 21 April 1816 Byron signed a Deed of Separation from his wife and did not exercise his paternal rights to retain custody of his offspring. Byron then had nothing further to do personally with his wife or child, only asking his sister to keep him updated on the baby’s welfare. He would die fighting in the Greek War of Independence on 19 April 1824 without ever seeing his daughter again.

Ada’s mother, know as Baroness Annabella Noel-Byron, was as much a genius as Lord Byron, but had different interests and a stricter code of sexual morality. She was, however, not much better as a parent than he was. The Baroness allowed her own mother Judith, Hon. Lady Milbanke, to raise Ada, and her main concern was whether or not her child would show signs of Lord Byron’s lusty nature or what Annabella considered to be his insanity.

To keep Ada from straying down a paternal primrose path to perdition, her mother encouraged to study mathematics, logic, and the sciences rather than romantic poetry or anything else that might ‘inflame’ her brain. Ada was “privately schooled in mathematics and science by William Frend, William King, and Mary Somerville, the noted researcher and scientific author of the 19th century … and logician Augustus De Morgan.” By the time Ada was presented at Court in 1832 at the age of seventeen, she was a well-known mathematical prodigy as well as an acknowledged beauty.  

To her mother’s despair Ada was also, in spite of a strong mathematical penchant and brilliance, very much her father’s daughter. The teenage Ada had eloped with a tutor, William Turner, in 1833 but was returned home before she was ‘compromised’. Ada was thereafter “prescribed that era’s popular cure for lust-laden young women: horseback riding” and kept under closer supervision.

Ada_Byron_aged_seventeen_(1832)

It was also considered much safer to leave Ada in the company of her FEMALE tutor, Mary Somerville, a Scots astronomer and mathematician who had become internationally famous in 1831 when she  translated Pierre-Simon Laplace’s five volume Mécanique Céleste  and published it in English as The Mechanism of the Heavens. Somerville introduced Ada to Charles Babbage in the hopes the prototype of his Difference Engine would distract the young woman from any needs that equestrian exercise couldn’t help.

Ada became fascinated Babbage’s ‘computing machine’ and loved to tinker with ideas about it’s improvement and uses. Ada was the first person to understand “that the machine had applications beyond pure calculation, and published the first algorithm intended to be carried out by such a machine.” Babbage was amazed by the young woman’s analytic mindset, and gave her the nickname “The Enchantress of Numbers.”

Cupid as well as math was still on Ada’s mind. She married William, 8th Baron King, on 8 July 1835, becoming Lady King.  Even though Ada would have three children in three years — Byron (born 12 May 1836); Anne Isabella (called Annabella; born 22 September 1837); and Ralph Gordon (born 2 July 1839) – her fame as a mathematician and scientist continued to grow. She became a fellow and friend of such renown thinkers as  Andrew Crosse, Sir David Brewster, Charles Wheatstone, Michael Faraday.

Beautiful and brilliant, Ada was generally adored by the peerage an public. Her husband was made Earl of Lovelace and Viscount Ockham in 1838 by Queen Victoria as a way of honoring her, since Ada was a descendant of the extinct Barons Lovelace and it was believed that such a luminary as herself was more deserving of the title the Countess of Lovelace than Lady King.

Ada_Lovelace_portrait

In October 1842, a young Italian engineer named Luigi Menabrea published a transcript of one of Babbage’s lectures about the Analytical Engine in the Bibliothèque universelle de Genève. In turn, Charles Wheatstone asked Ada to translate the paper into English so it could be published as a monograph in Britain. “Explaining the Analytical Engine’s function was a difficult task, as even many other scientists did not really grasp the concept.” Ada not only translated Babbage’s lecture, she spent the better part of a year adding notes to it, with input from Babbage himself.

These notes, which are more extensive than Menabrea’s paper …  even had to explain how the Analytical Engine differed from the original Difference Engine … [with] a vision of the capability of computers to go beyond mere calculating or number-crunching, while many others, including Babbage himself, focused only on those capabilities … {Her notes] were then published in Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs under the initialism AAL … [including an] algorithm for the Analytical Engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. It is considered the first published algorithm ever specifically tailored for implementation on a computer, and Ada Lovelace has often been cited as the first computer programmer for this reason.

For decades after she published her analysis, and even into the modern era, Ada’s perspicacity was ignored or dismissed. She wasn’t an incredibly gifted mathematician; she was merely a “promising beginner” who saw something special in the work of the real genius, Charles Babbage. Furthermore, the fact she wrote the first program for a computing engine doesn’t make her the first programmer, for God’s sake. She was only wise enough to see the potential in Babbage’s work. In fact, it was probably Babbage himself who wrote the lion’s share of the notes!

Ada_Byron_daguerreotype_by_Antoine_Claudet_1843_or_1850

Lovelace was also easily dismissed by later scientists because not only was she a chick, like many MALE scientists of the day, she was very into iffy pseudosciences, such phrenology, mesmerism, and spiritualism. She thought of things in terms of “poetical science” and “valued metaphysics as much as mathematics, viewing both as tools for exploring “the unseen worlds around us”.  Ada described herself as an “Analyst (& Metaphysician)” and thought that reality was a porous, fragile thing. Having read about spooky action at a distance, one can hardly say she was silly to believe there were unknown forces at work on the universe.

During her lifetime, her work was overshadowed by both her gender and nascent sexual scandals. Ada’s tendency to make friendships with male scientists and philosophers led to accusations of infidelity. In response to these rumors, her mother sent William Benjamin Carpenter to live with the Lovelaces in 1844, so that he could “teach Ada’s children and to act as a “moral” instructor for Ada.” This backfired spectacularly when Carpenter fell in love with her. As soon as Ada realized the also-married Carpenter was putting the moves on her, she gave him the boot.

She MAY have had an affair, though, with John Crosse, a son of fellow scientist Andrew Crosse. Ada confessed to something on her deathbed that made her patient, loving husband – who had forgiven her massive gambling debts – storm off and refuse to see her in the months remaining of her life.

Ada Lovelace’s mother remained with her until the very end, a much better parent at the end of her daughter’s life than at its beginning. Lady Byron attended her daughter with every care the whole time Ada was dying from uterine cancer, “supporting her however she could, spiritually as well as physically.” Lady Byron has been unfairly criticized for taking away her daughter’s pain medication, supposedly for the good of Ada’s impure soul, but this is calumny. Ada was given opiates and cannabis, but would resist taking the meds whenever she felt she was strong enough so that she could have periods of lucidity.

On 27 November 1852 Ada Lovelace died, like her father, at age 36.

In the last few decades Lovelace has finally been acknowledged for her role in computer programming. In 1980 the US defense department approved a computer language, Ada, named in her honor, and since 1998 the British Computer Society (BCS) has awarded the Lovelace Medal to those who make significant contributions to the science of computing. Best of all, there is now the Ada Initiative, a non-profit organization seeking to increase women’s participation in STEM and open source technology

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