That the world’s first computer programmer was a Victorian woman is remarkable in itself, but that she was the daughter of one of literature’s most well-known poets adds such colour to the story it is difficult to understand how it isn’t more widely known. Born in 1815, Ada Lovelace is not a name that draws the same reverence or even recognition as the likes of Alan Turing, Charles Babbage or Tim Berners-Lee – all undeniable innovators in technology. Yet she was the first to imagine the potential that modern computers held, and her predictions so accurately mirrored what later became the technological revolution that she is seen by many as a visionary, and even, by some, a prophet.
Understanding Ada’s ancestry and childhood is key to discovering how this unlikely historical figure played her part in the creation and proliferation of the computer. Her mother, Anne Isabella ‘Annabella’ Byron, didn’t want her daughter to grow up to be like her father, the eminent poet Lord Byron. He was tempestuous and prone to mood swings – the true picture of a popular poet. Annabella was terrified Ada would inherit her father’s instabilities – a fear that would prove to be not entirely unfounded. As such, it was upon Annabella’s insistence that her daughter be brought up completely in control of herself, able to apply logic and certainly not preoccupied with sensation and emotions in the same way that her father was.
If flights of fancy were Annabella’s concern, there were signs early in Ada’s life that her determination had not suppressed all of these tendencies. At the age of 12, Ada was already developing a curious scientific mind, and became obsessed with the idea of learning to fly. In the hope of achieving this lofty ambition, Ada undertook extensive and methodical research into materials that could be used to make effective wings and examined birds and insects for further inspiration. She gathered her findings in a volume and named it ‘Flyology’. At first, Annabella encouraged her daughter’s enthusiasm for research and science, but as the obsession took hold, Ada was forced by her mother to abandon her project.
Annabella’s insistence on bringing up her daughter firmly rooted in logic was most likely inspired by her own interest in mathematics, and manifested itself in many, occasionally odd, ways. Part of Ada’s ‘education’ was to observe the task of lying still for hours on end, an activity designed to teach ‘self control’. In addition, Annabella was not a particularly maternal force, referring to Ada in letters as “it”, and leaving Ada in the care of her grandmother, Lady Judith Millbanke. However, Judith died when Ada was six years old, and from then on her guardianship was covered by various nannies, and later, tutors, who had been chosen and approved by Annabella.
Lord Byron, Ada’s father, had left two months after her birth for a life in Italy. His marriage to Annabella had ended abruptly, in a slew of scandalous rumours of affairs between Byron and a chorus girl, myriad financial troubles and rumoured violence and abuse. After travelling to Italy, where he stayed with Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley, Byron’s final years were spent in Greece, where he had joined the forces fighting for independence from the Ottoman Empire. It was here that he died in 1824, when Ada was just eight years old – the two never met.
While the mathematical passions of her mother meant Ada had endured some unorthodox methods in her upbringing, it also meant that she received an extraordinary gift, rare for women in the 19th century – a comprehensive mathematical education. Ada’s tutors were a diverse group of academics, reading as a ‘who’s who’ of early to mid-19th century intellectuals. Among the most notable were William Frend, a renowned social reformer; William King, the family’s doctor, and perhaps most notably, Mary Somerville, a fellow female mathematician and astronomer.
Five years after her obsessive research into flight, Ada met a man who would prove integral to her life, and in particular, her intellectual pursuits. Charles Babbage was a technological innovator and had created the Analytical Engine – the device generally considered to be the first computer. Babbage was 42, and yet despite the gap of more than 20 years between them, a friendship would grow that would not only provide them with comfort and intellectual stimulation, but provide the world with its most revolutionary invention yet – the computer.
Babbage had been working under commission from the British government on a machine called the Difference Engine, but the Analytical Engine was something far more complex. Where the Difference Engine was essentially a calculator, designed to eliminate inaccuracies by fallible humans, the Analytical Engine could perform more complex calculations, stretching far beyond numbers. This was the first time any such machine had been conceived, let alone designed.
Babbage couldn’t secure funding for his research into the new machine while the last project remained unfinished, but his determination to progress the Analytical Engine spurred him on, until he eventually found a sympathetic reception in Italy. In 1842, an Italian mathematician named Luigi Menabrea published an essay on the function of the machine. The text was in French, and Ada’s talent for languages coupled with her mathematical understanding made her the perfect candidate to translate the document for Babbage. Over the course of nine months, she did this, but while the memoir was valuable, it paled in comparison to Ada’s additions, which Babbage had suggested she should add in as she saw fit.
The notes that Ada made alongside the document were ground breaking. They exceeded the document she had translated, not just in length, but in depth and insight. One of the most quoted phrases, “the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves,” is a particularly feminine turn of phrase, strategically plucked from a much more lengthy, as well as technical, comparison of the machine to the Jacquard loom. In fact, most of the text is purely scientific, of a tone that wouldn’t be out of place in a modern-day programming textbook. For example, she wrote: “When the value on any variable is called into use, one of two consequences may be made to result.”
Ada also used the example of the complex numerical sequence known as Bernoulli numbers to prove the ability of the machine to calculate complex sequences from an original program. Detractors have used this against Lovelace, taking it as proof that the observations expressed in her notes weren’t truly hers, but simply a relaying of information given to her by Babbage. Indeed, Ada did not have a full understanding of calculus, but even if Bernoulli numbers were the suggestion of Babbage, the principle of her assumptions remained the same. It was the insight for potential in her translation of this document that earned Countess Lovelace the moniker the ‘World’s First Computer Programmer’.
Ada saw herself foremost as an “analyst and metaphysician,” but while her scientific prowess earned her a place in history, she lived a generally unremarkable domestic life. In 1835, two years after her first meeting with Babbage, Ada married William King, 8th Baron of King, later to become the Earl of Lovelace. Ada and William would go on to have three children, the first, named Byron, born in May 1836. Two siblings shortly followed: Anne in September 1837 and Ralph in July 1839.
Ada suffered with health problems, both mentally and in the form of physical sicknesses, including cholera, from which she recovered. Annabella held Ada, William and the family in her financial thrall and as such, they lived on her terms. This, combined with William’s sometimes controlling, even abusive, character, was at odds with Ada’s friendly and fiercely independent nature. Affairs were rumoured, one in particular with the tutor to Ada’s children, William Benjamin Carpenter, but there is no evidence that she ever embarked on an extra-marital relationship.
Ada died of uterine cancer aged just 36, the same age as her father, and was out-lived by her mother. In the years following her death, incredible advances have been made in the fields of technology, and her prophecies have been realised. The authenticity of her authorship has been questioned, but her findings proved invaluable to Alan Turing’s work in the mid-20th century and were re-published at that time. Her legacy continues in the form of Ada Lovelace day, observed annually on 15 October. The day has the aim of raising awareness and interest for women in science. Ada was an unusual person in so many ways, and a remarkable one, and she continues to inspire those who feel that they must defy expectation to follow their passions.