Woman of the Week: Ada Lovelace (née Augusta Ada Byron)

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Ada in 1840 (by Alfred Edward Chalon)

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) is known as the ‘mother of modern computing’, but not by nearly enough of the world. The only legitimate child of the famous poet, Lord Byron, she deserves fame in her own right for her contributions to computing and mathematics, a field vastly different from her father’s.

Ada never knew Lord Byron, thanks in part to his dying when she was just 8 years old, but more specifically due to her mother, Anne Isabella Milbanke, maintaining a violent dislike for her husband, who she considered insane. Hoping to discourage any similar tendencies in their only offspring, she encouraged Ada to study mathematics and science, which she believed would help subdue poetic (and thus insane) proclivities.

Whether due to her mother’s grooming or her own natural talent, Ada’s zest for innovation and learning manifested at an early age. When she was just 12, Ada was designing wings to allow human flight, using her anatomical observations of birds to determine the size, shape and materials that would best achieve her goal.

Her education was enhanced greatly by the opportunity of having Mary Somerville, one of the first known female scientists, as a tutor. Becoming close friends with the Scottish mathematician, it was Somerville who both encouraged her studies in higher mathematics and who would eventually introduce her to Charles Babbage in 1833. The 17 year old scholar quickly gained his respect and began an extensive correspondence with him in which they discussed mathematics and Babbage’s invention, an early calculator he called the difference machine. Babbage clearly respected his gifted protégée, coming to refer to her as the ‘Enchantress of Number’.

Ada shed her famous father’s name in 1835, upon marrying William King, later the first Earl of Lovelace. Fortunately, King appears to have supported her scholastic pursuits, and together the couple enjoyed the society of various known academics of the time including Michael Faraday and Charles Dickens. Family life didn’t prevent Ada’s continuing endeavours – in fact, her most famous contributions were made only after the birth of her third and last child.

In 1842, Ada started translating a French work describing Babbage’s newest computational concept, called Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage. However, the notes and algorithms that she added to the basic translation were so abundant that by the time it was published, the work was largely her own.

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Though not visually impressive, the Bernouli algorithm is recognised today as the world’s first computer program

There remains contention regarding whether Ada herself wrote an algorithm intended to compute Bernouli numbers, widely considered to be the first known computer program. While it is certain that she worked on it, some scholars believe that the actual calculations were performed by Babbage, with Ada only editing it and specifically correcting a major error made by the older mathematician. Regardless of the exact details, it was remarkable work for the 26 year old that gives Ada and Babbage every right to their titles as the ‘mother and father’ of computer programming.  In addition, Ada is credited with being the first to recognise the wider application of using algorithms for any sort of information, such as music or language, by converting the data into numerical form. Today, this concept seems meaninglessly abstruse or glaringly self-evident: at the time, it was revolutionary.

“[The Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations…” – (notes on Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage, 1843)

Sadly, from 1843, Ada’s health declined and she began to drink heavily and rely on opiates prescribed as painkillers, causing her moods to be erratic. Her habit of gambling resulted in huge debts after she tried unsuccessfully to devise a mathematical model allowing for large wins, and this minor scandal was exacerbated by rumours of affairs with various men. She died tragically young in 1852, aged just 36, from uterine cancer.

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A portrait of Ada in 1836, jokingly described thus in a letter: “I conclude [the artist] is bent on displaying the whole expanse of my capacious jaw bone upon which the word Mathematics should be written.” (by Margaret Carpenter)