Ada Lovelace: The First Computer Programmer (Ada Lovelace Biography)


What if I told you the world’s “first
computer programmer” was born over two hundred years ago? And, what if that programmer was a she. Lady Ada Lovelace was her name — and her
genius was nearly lost to history. Daughter to the famous Romantic poet Lord
Byron, Ada was almost relegated as a footnote in her father’s biography. In the nineteenth century, at the height of
the industrial revolution, she was pushed into the male dominion of mathematics and
science by her zealot mother. Mentored by the “father of the computer,”
she emerged as a woman far ahead of her time in her ability to see what could be. Not your typical aristocratic lady, part of
Ada’s story holds a shadowy secret. And, on her deathbed, her last wish speaks
volumes. Today on Biographics we explore the “Enchantress
of Number,” Ada Lovelace. Early Life Ada Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron in
London on December 10, 1815 to the philandering Romantic poet Lord Byron and strictly religious
Annabella Milbanke. Ada was Lord Byron’s only legitimate child. Lord and Lady Byron were members of the high
British society. Beyond social status, they shared virtually
nothing in common. Annabella was analytical and conformist while
Lord Byron cared little for numbers and logic. True, he was a celebrated and adored poet,
yet his behavior raised more than a few eyebrows. He was known to drink from a human skull,
own a pet bear, and engage in numerous love affairs with both men and women. One notorious scandal involved an affair with
his own half-sister. A scorned lover once said of Lord Byron, he
was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Not surprisingly, Annabella and Lord Byron’s
marriage did not last beyond a year. In a contemptuous split when Ada was only
five weeks old, Lord Byron left the home. He wrote of this parting, “Is thy face like
thy mother’s my fair child! ADA! sole daughter of my house and heart?” Deeply bitter and resentful, Lady Annabella
covered his portrait with a large curtain and forbade Ada from ever looking at it. Four months after Lord Byron left his infant
daughter he left England for good, never to return. When Ada was eight years old, he died of an
illness in Greece while fighting in the war of independence. He was 36 years old. Although Ada never met her father, she remained
fascinated with him and his poetry over the course of her life. Annabella was determined to steer her daughter
away from developing her father’s “volatile poetic insanity” as she called it. She truly believed Lord Byron was mentally
ill. Almost to the brink of fanaticism, Annabella
saw to it that Ada received an education rigorous in mathematics and science. This was a rather unusual course of study
for girls in British Victorian society even if Annabella herself was gifted in math. Byron referred to her as the “Princess of
Parallelograms.” Popular opinion of the time favored one of
Ada’s later tutors and brilliant mathematician, Augustus De Morgan, who believed women were
incapable of excelling in the discipline. On the one hand, De Morgan acknowledged Ada’s
abilities yet in a letter to her mother he wrote, “The very great tension of mind which
they require is beyond the strength of a woman’s physical power of application.” Basically meaning, women were incapable because
they were not as strong as men. Ada would prove that theory wrong. As a young girl and into her teen years Ada
was mostly isolated and did not spend a great deal of time with her mother. Still, Annabella was committed to her daughter’s
education and well-being. She employed some of the greatest intellectual
minds to tutor Ada including William King, a physician, William Frend, a social reformer
and Mary Somerville, a Scottish astronomer, mathematician, and the first woman to be admitted
into the Royal Astronomical Society. Ada and Somerville became close friends. In addition to algebra and geometry, Ada was
taught lessons in history, literature, languages, geography, music, sewing and shorthand. These were all common subject areas but Ada’s
mother planned something else that was far more bizarre. In an attempt to protect her daughter from
developing her father’s impulses, Ada had to lie still for long periods of time. This was a lesson in self-control. Ada was a bright student and showed promise
for math and science. At the age of 12 after a year-long tour of
Europe, she became obsessed with birds and flight. She researched what she referred to as ““flyology,”
and imaginatively and methodically conceptualized a flying machine that could flap its wings. She wrote to her mother, “I have got a scheme,
to make a thing in the form of a horse with a steam engine in the inside so contrived
as to move an immense pair of wings, fixed on the outside of the horse, in such a manner
as to carry it up into the air while a person sits on its back.” For her design, she considered the type of
material — paper, silk, or feathers; navigational equipment — a compass; and steam — the source
of power. In between throwing herself into intellectual
pursuits, Ada battled sickness. She frequently complained of headaches that
obscured her vision. In 1829, she contracted measles, a common
childhood affliction in the 1800s. The illness resulted in continuous bed rest
for a year and she was disabled temporarily. In 1831 at the age of 16, she was finally
able to walk again with the aid of crutches. By the age of 17 Ada was feeling better and
in keeping with the customs of her social class, she was presented at Court and became
became a popular belle of the season — dancing and charming the attendees with her “brilliant
mind.” Spark of Genius The industrial revolution was in full force
by the time Ada was a teenager. It was a glorious time in history for the
advancement of technology, and the perfect time for the inquisitive Ada to be coming
of age. Make no mistake, she had the makings of a
phenom (inherit abilities combined with rigorous education). She also had access to intellects, inventors,
and influential people in power all because of her position in society. All of this was the perfect storm and meeting
the famed inventor Charles Babbage was Ada’s lightning bolt. In 1833, the seventeen year old Ada was among
a select group to attend a coveted party hosted by Babbage, know by many today as the “father
of the computer.” A guest wrote at the time, “One of the three
qualifications for those who sought to be invited were intellect, beauty, or rank.” Ada fit right in. At the soiree, Babbage unveiled a small part
of his latest machine, a massive mechanical calculator known as the Difference Engine. The design for Babbage’s engine was revolutionary
and fully constructed, would perform the work of an army of men crunching numbers. The machine would be powered by steam and
would methodically perform complex calculations using only addition, by breaking it into smaller
and smaller pieces — known as the method of finite differences. Then, it would print out the values into a
table. Babbage’s machine had enormous potential
in the nineteenth century since tables were used in many areas including navigation, astronomy
and engineering. With this powerful calculator, human error
would be erased. The engine was accurate within thirty one
decimal places. To many guests that night Babbage’s invention
was a hunk of metal and little more than a party favor. Not to Ada. De Morgan’s wife was there, and later wrote
of the night, “When most of the guests looked on with the expression that savages show on
seeing a looking glass, Miss Byron, young as she was, understood its working and saw
the great beauty of the invention.” Babbage must have been impressed with Ada’s
intellect and enthusiasm for the machine. From that night on, he remained her mentor
and lifelong friend. Analytical Engine Babbage’s Difference Engine would not come
to be after a disagreement with his engineer Joseph Clement. In those days, by law, the engineer owned
the drawings and after their falling out, he could not get them back. Consequently, the British government also
withdrew their funding for the project. This forced Babbage back to his original concept
and he came up with an even better idea in 1834 — a far more complex machine he called
the Analytical Engine. The Analytical Engine is considered to be
the world’s first programmable general-purpose computer. The basic structure of the engine is essentially
the same as modern-day computers. Of course, Babbage’s machine would have
been massive in scale. His entry-level machines would have been 45
feet long by 15 feet high but he talked about others, ten times the size. Nothing like it had ever been conceived or
attempted to be built. In fact, in his lifetime, only a small trial
engine was constructed. The Analytical Engine consisted of four components:
the mill, which calculated units; the store, where the data was held for processing; and
the reader and printer, the input and output devices. It was truly groundbreaking and would become
Ada’s legacy. Since Ada and Babbage’s first meeting, she
became his protege; he was the teacher and she was the pupil. After Babbage showed her the plans for the
Analytical Engine, she eagerly went on a tour of cotton mills in the north of England to
see the most technologically advanced machine of the day — the Jacquard loom. The loom automated weaving of patterned silk
and was controlled by a series of punch cards. It was fascinating and also controversial. A cotton mill with a Jacquard loom didn’t
need skilled workers to weave intricate patterns. While groups such as the Luddites were protesting
against these machines on account of replacing workers’ jobs, Ada was thinking something
else entirely. She was deeply interested in the genius behind
the punch cards and wanted to know how men were translating the complicated patterns
into something simple the loom could understand. She saw the similarities to her beloved machine
and later wrote, “The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard
loom weaves flowers and leaves.” For the next ten years, in between getting
married and having three children, Ada focused all her energy into learning everything she
could about the Analytical Engine. She wrote, “I think I am more determined
than ever in my future plans, and I have quite made up my mind that nothing must be suffered
to interfere with them. I intend to make such arrangements in town
as will secure me a couple of hours daily (with very few exceptions) for my studies.” After attending one of Babbage’s rare lectures,
a military engineer and future Italian prime minister Luigi Menabrea wrote an impressive
article, Sketch of the analytical engine invented by Charles Babbage Esquir. The paper was extremely detailed and mathematical
— and it was also written in French. Ada decided to translate the paper and, since
she knew the engine so well she would add her own thoughts to it. Many years later Babbage claimed to have told
Ada to translate it and write her own account, and she responded by saying she hadn’t thought
of it. Either way, she went about the task “like
a devil possessed,” and when she was finished, her notes were three times as long as the
original paper. Ada published her completed article in Scientific
Memoirs, an English scientific journal published by Richard Taylor in 1843. Ada used only her initials “A.A.L.,” for
Augusta Ada Lovelace, in the publication. The part of the paper that gives weight to
Ada’s credit as “first computer programmer” comes in section G. In it, Ada wrote of how the engine could be
programmed with a code to calculate Bernoulli numbers — an algorithm to be carried out
by a machine and thus the first computer program. Along with numbers, Ada described how codes
could be created for the device to handle letters and symbols. She also theorized a method for the engine
to repeat a series of instructions, or looping, a process computer programs use today. Ada also offered up other concepts in her
paper, such as thoughts on artificial intelligence. She wrote, “The Analytical Engine has no
pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it
to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power
of anticipating any analytical relations or truths.” Her notes were significant in that they captured
Ada’s vision for the Analytical Engine. And this is where she exceeds her mentor in
understanding its full potential. Babbage’s historian wrote: “Ada saw something that Babbage in some
sense failed to see. In Babbage’s world his engines were bound
by number…What Lovelace saw…was that number could represent entities other than quantity….looking
back from the present high ground of modern computing, if we are looking and sifting history
for that transition, then that transition was made explicitly by Ada in that 1843 paper.” Babbage was impressed with Ada and wrote,
“The more I read your notes, the more surprised I am and regret not having earlier explored
so rich a vein of the noblest metal.” The next obvious step for the Analytical Engine
would have been Babbage and Ada’s crowning moment, but it would not come to pass. Babbage was known to be a difficult man and
he argued with politicians over his machines. The relationship with Parliament was particularly
sour after Babbage failed to deliver his government funded, Difference Engine. The loss of money in those days was the equivalent
of two Royal Navy warships. Ada had a plan to promote the engine but it
was a sensitive subject — one she broached in a letter dated August 14, 1843. She asked Babbage if she could take over for
him in promoting the Analytical Engine while he step aside and focus only on building it. She ended with, “You will wonder over this
last query, but I strongly advise you not to reject it.” Babbage said no, refusing all of her conditions. He would not give up control and likely saw
her asking, and presuming she could raise the money, as an audacious move. Personal Life Depending on the lens used to evaluate Ada,
she can be hailed as a genius, a Victorian high society lady, a mother and wife, a gambler,
adulteress, or drug addict. In truth, she may have been all of these things. She was like most of us — complex and contradictory. As one would expect, Ada married and had children. She wed William King (not William King her
tutor) in 1835 at the age of 19. He was 30. King seemed to be a “precise, conscientious
and decent man, if somewhat stiff.” Three years after they tied the knot, King
became the Earl of Lovelace and Ada took the title Countess of Lovelace. They had three children together: Byron, born
in May 1836; Anne Isabella, called Annabella, born in September 1837; and Ralph Gordon,
born in July 1839. For a time between 1835 and 1839 Ada focused
most of energy on running the large household though she found time for horse riding, learning
the harp and studying mathematics. After their third child was born, Ada turned
her attention back to maths and sciences, and was tutored by Augustus De Morgan. King was supportive. Socially, the couple had many prominent friends
and acquaintances including the writer Charles Dickens. In addition to headaches and measles suffered
in childhood, Ada had recurrent health problems as an adult. After a bout of cholera in 1837 she had problems
with asthma and her digestive system. She was prescribed the powerfully addictive
painkiller laudanum, an opiate, to be taken with wine. The drug altered her personality and she reported
hallucinations and mood swings. In 1841, Ada and Medora Leigh, the daughter
of Lord Byron’s half-sister Augusta Leigh, were told by Ada’s mother that Lord Byron
was also Medora’s father. In February, Ada wrote to her mother: “I
am not in the least astonished. In fact, you merely confirm what I have for
years and years felt scarcely a doubt about, but should have considered it most improper
in me to hint to you that I in any way suspected.” She did not blame the incestuous relationship
on her father, but instead blamed Augusta Leigh: “I fear she is more inherently wicked
than he ever was.” In the 1840s Ada flirted with scandals. First, from a relaxed relationship with men
who were not her husband, which led to rumours she was having affairs. And then, an old family vice surfaced. Ada’s life took a shadowy turn in 1851 when
she began gambling on horses. Perhaps she was trying in vain to raise funds
for her beloved Analytical Engine but no one really knows. Ada did not act alone, she was part of a gambling
ring and in the spring season, her bets went horribly wrong. It has been said, Ada may have devised a mathematical
scheme to predict the winning horses. If so, it didn’t work out well for her. In a failed bet at the Epsom Derby, Ada ended
up owing the equivalent of roughly half a million pounds. To get out of her debt, she pawned some of
the family jewels. In 1852, Ada became gravely ill and took to
her bed. She died painfully and slowly of uterine cancer
on November 27, 1852 at the age of 36 — the exact age her father had been. A few months before she died, she made an
unknown confession to her husband that made him leave her bedside. Her final wish was an act of defiance against
her mother. Ada wanted to be buried next to the man who
loomed large in her life but she never knew…her father. Ada’s body was taken miles away from her
home to the Byron family vault inside the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in the small
English town of Hucknall. Ada’s Legacy “That brain of mine is something more than
merely mortal, as time will show.” Ada’s contributions were buried for 100
years…discovered by a scientist, Alan Turing, in the 1940s during the Second World War. Turing was something of a kindred spirit who
who was interested in the same things she was — machines that could act upon instruction. His work ultimately led the effort to build
a machine with the code name, The Bombe that deciphered encrypted messages sent by Hitler’s
armed forces. Turing’s work had begun before reading Ada’s
notes on the Analytical Engine yet he was greatly influenced by them. She, along with Babbage, essentially paved
the way for Turing who is considered today as the father of theoretical computer science
and artificial intelligence. Consequently, Ada’s notes surfaced for the
world in B.V. Bowden’s book “Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing
Machines” in 1953. Then, during the 1970s, the U.S. Department
of Defense developed a high-order computer programming language to supersede the hundreds
of different ones then in use by the military. It was named “Ada.” Ada is still used around the world today in
the operation of real-time systems in the aviation, health care, transportation, financial,
infrastructure and space industries. In the present day, an international celebration
takes place on the second Tuesday of October — Ada Lovelace Day. Founded in 2009 by Suw Charman-Anderson, it’s
aim is to recognize the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths
(STEM). It also has a goal to increase the profile
of women in STEM and, in doing so, create new role models who will encourage more girls
into STEM careers. Ada is everywhere in our modern digital world
— immortalized on the internet forever in news articles, blog posts, memes, quotable
quotes…there’s even some controversy of whether or not she deserves the claim “first
computer programmer.” But, there is no denying her vision far surpassed
any of her contemporaries, including Babbage. In all his 11 volumes of published writings
he never wrote of the aspirations for computing like Ada had. “Those who have learned to walk on the threshold
of the unknown worlds, by means of what are commonly termed par excellence the exact sciences,
may then, with the fair white wings of imagination, hope to soar further into the unexplored amidst
which we live.”