Ada Lovelace (1815–52)

11th October 2020

Ada Lovelace Day celebrates the achievements of all women in STEM – her story can inspire others to ‘believe and achieve’.

Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace (Ada Lovelace) was born in Middlesex (London) 10th December 1815. 

Early Years

In the years that she lived, women were not expected to be educated, have opinions or even have a formal education. In fact it wasn’t until many years after she died that the first women in the UK were allowed to attend university! So it makes it all the more remarkable that Ada Lovelace defied all the expectations of her times and left a legacy of work that laid the foundations for computer science.

Ada’s mother (Anne Isabella Milbanke) and her Poet father (Lord Byron) separated when Ada was only a few months old. Her mother, Anne, believed that Lord Byron was feckless and so encouraged Ada to pursue ‘sensible’ interests. She kept Ada occupied with tutoring in arithmetic, music, and French. Her mother was also keen to dampen Ada’s ‘overactive imagination’ which she described as “dangerous and potentially destructive and coming from the Byrons.”

Ada however became obsessed with science and mathematics and despite her mother’s best wishes, she developed a very active  and creative imagination!

When Ada was about 12 years old, her mother became ill and had to go away for treatment. Ada  designed a flying machine  so that she could ‘fly away’ to be with her mother. She studied birds, feathers, flight and used mathematical equations to predict how it would work. Remember, this was years before the first aeroplane flew.

Ada suffered many bouts of ill health as a teenager – at one stage she was bedridden for a year after being partly paralysed by measles. and could later only walk with crutches.

Ada Makes a Difference

When Ada was 17 she attended a party and was introduced to Charles Babbage, the renowned mathematician who spoke at length about his recent invention called The Difference Engine –  probably boring everyone else at the party, but the invention captured the imagination of Ada. 

Babbage described it as a tower of numbered wheels that could make reliable calculations with the turn of a handle. 

Ada was fascinated and badgered her mother to let her visit Babbage to see the machine. A few days after the party Ada and her mother went  to visit Babbage at his home to see a model prototype.

Before he attempted to build the full scale ‘Difference Engine’, Babbage sketched out the idea of another machine, this time it was called the “Analytical Engine” a machine with thousands of cogwheels that could perform more functions than the Difference Engine and with greater accuracy. This machine had many of the features of a modern day computer. Including a memory, storage and programming. 

Meanwhile the construction of the ‘Difference Engine ran into difficulties.The cost for building a full scale version was being funded by the British Government who  eventually withdrew funds after problems, delays and spiralling costs (it was eventually scrapped). 

With no financial support from the government Babbage went Turin, Italy to promote his work and seek financial support.

Luigi Federico Menabrea, a mathematician attended his presentations and compiled notes summarising the lectures. He eventually wrote a scientific  paper on the Analytical Engine. However, if Babbage expected Luigi’s work would help promote the Analytical Engine, he was to be disappointed.

It took Luigi two years to get his paper written and, to make matters worse he wrote it in French and had it published in a Swiss academic journal. Not exactly great publicity!

Lovelace Saves the Day

Menabrea’s eight thousand word paper was published in 1842. Luckily for Babbage, Ada was fluent in French and understood the theory of the machine. Babbage asked Ada to translate the paper.

Ada Lovelace not only translated the paper from French to English, she added her own notes, thoughts and interpretations. Her version ran to twenty thousand words!

It is this work and her far sighted vision for how the machine could be used and programmed that presented a giant leap forward in scientific understanding. She made an inaccessible technical paper on a theoretical machine accessible and far easier to understand.

Legacy

It was clear from her translation and additional notes that Ada not only understood the machine but had a great understanding of the powerful application of it.

She described how the Analytical Engine would work, together with a plan of how to use punch cards to ‘programme’ the machine to do complex operations and mathematical calculations. 

  • In one of her notes (called Note G)  Ada adds a step-by-step description (an algorithm)  for computation of Bernoulli numbers –  making her the world’s first computer programmer.
  • she understood that numbers could be used to represent more than just quantities, and a machine that could manipulate numbers could be made to manipulate any data represented by numbers.
  • She also predicted that machines like the Analytical Engine could also process musical notes, letters and images.

“The science of operations, as derived from mathematics more especially, is a science of itself, and has its own abstract truth and value,” 

Ada Lovelace

Ada died of cancer on 27th November 1852 aged only 36. She is buried next to her father Lord Byron – the father she never knew – at St Mary Magdalene Church in Nottinghamshire England.

Ada Lovelace Day, 13 Oct 2020

Ada Lovelace Day (ALD) is an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). It aims to increase the profile of women in STEM and, in doing so, create new role models who will encourage more girls into STEM careers and support women already working in STEM.

13th September 2021