For the month of March, the world celebrates Women’s History Month. I am devoting a week each in March to one woman I am inspired by.
For this week, I am devoting the week to Ada Lovelace.
Augusta Ada Byron was born on 10 December 1815 to Lord Byron and Lady Byron, the only legitimate child of the Lord. She was named after Byron’s half-sister, Augusta Leigh and was called Ada himself. On 16 January 1816, Lord Byron commanded Lady Byron to leave for her parents’ house with their child. Although English law at the time granted full custody to the father, he wanted nothing to do with his daughter as he had hoped for a son and was disappointed. He did, however, ask his sister to keep him informed of Ada’s welfare.
Lord Byron died when she was eight years old. Lovelace was not shown the family portrait of her father until her 20th birthday. She was not close to her mother, but that was the only parental figure in her life. She was always left with her maternal grandmother who doted on her. In one letter to her mother, Lady Byron, referred to her child as “it”. Lady Byron had her teenage daughter watched by close friends for any sign of moral deviation. Lovelace dubbed these observers the “Furies” and later complained they exaggerated and invented stories about her.
She was often ill which began in early childhood. She had migraines since the age of eight. In June 1829, she was paralyzed after a bout of measles. She was forced into bed rest for over a year. By 1831, she was able to walk with crutches. Despite this, she developed her mathematical and technological skills.
Ada had an affair with a tutor in 1933 at the age of 18. She tried to elope with him but she was caught. Her tutor’s relatives called her mother. Lady Byron and her friends covered the incident up to prevent a public scandal.
She was presented at court at 17, and became a popular “belle of the season”. In 1833, she became close friends with her tutor Mary Somerville who happened to introduce her to Charles Babbage. Her other acquaintances include Andrew Crosse, Sir David Brewster, Charles Wheatstone, Michael Faraday and the author Charles Dickens. By 1834, she was a regular at court and attended many events.
Babbage invited Lovelace to see the prototype for his difference engine. She became fascinated with the machine and used her relationship with Somerville to visit Babbage as often as she could. Babbage was impressed by Lovelace’s intellect and analytic skills. He called her “The Enchantress of Number”.
On 8 July 1835 she married William, 8th Baron King, becoming Lady King. They had three children, Byron (born 1836), Anne Isabella (Annabella) (born 1837) and Ralph Gordon (born 1839). Ada was a descendant of the extinct Barons Lovelace and in 1838, her husband was made Earl of Lovelace and Viscount Ockham, making her the Countess of Lovelace.
In the 1840s, Ada flirted with scandals: firstly, from a relaxed approach to extra-marital relationships with men, leading to rumours of affairs; and secondly, from her love of gambling.
In 1840, Babbage was invited to give a seminar at the University of Turin about his Analytical Engine. Ada’s notes describes an algorithm for the Analytical Engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. It is considered to be 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. The engine was never completed and so her program was never tested.
From 1832, her mathematical abilities began to emerge, and her interest in mathematics dominated the majority of her adult life. In the 1840s, the mathematician Augustus De Morgan extended her “much help in her mathematics studies” including study of advanced calculus topics including the “numbers of Bernoulli”. In a letter to Lady Byron, De Morgan suggested that Ada’s skill in mathematics might lead her to become “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence”.
Lovelace often questions basic assumptions through integrating poetry and science. Whilst studying differential calculus, she wrote to De Morgan:
“I may remark that the curious transformations many formulae can undergo, the unsuspected and to a beginner apparently impossible identity of forms exceedingly dissimilar at first sight, is I think of the chief difficulties in the early part of the mathematical studies. I am often reminded of certain sprites and fairies one reads of, who are at one’s elbows in one shape now, amd the next minute in a form most dissimilar.”
Lovelace believed that intuition and imagination were critical to effectively applying mathematical and scientific concepts. She valued metaphysics as much as mathematics, viewing both as tools for exploring “the unseen worlds around us”.
Lovelace died at the age of 36 on 27 November 1852, from uterine cancer. The illness lasted several months, in which time Annabella took command over whom Ada saw, and excluded all of her friends and confidants. Under her mother’s influence, Ada had a religious transformation and was coaxed into repenting of her previous conduct and making Annabella her executor. She lost contact with her husband after confessing something to him on 30 August which caused him to abandon her bedside. It is not known what she told him. She was buried, at her request, next to her father at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. A memorial plaque, written in Latin, to her and her father is in the chapel attached to Horsley Towers.
In 1953, more than a century after her death, Ada Lovelace’s notes on Babbage’s Analytical Engine were republished as an appendix to B. V. Bowden’s Faster than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines. The engine has now been recognised as an early model for a computer and her notes as a description of a computer and software.