Ada Lovelace. Portrait released under CC0. Portrait of Ada Lovelace (released under CC0).

The mathematician

Ada was born 1815 in London. She was the daughter of Anne Isabella Noel Byron (“Annabella”) and George Gordon Byron (“Byron”).

Byron was a famous and well-traveled poet, considered one of the “most flamboyant and notorious of the major Romantics”.1 He was highly indebted and had many lovers, and was soon considered insane by his wife Annabella, who left him after a year of marriage - taking their newborn daughter Ada with her. After the separation, Byron left England and never saw Ada again.

Annabella was a highly educated woman with strict morals. Byron called her the Princess of Parallelograms and the amiable Mathematician.2 After separating from Byron, Annabella made sure that Ada received private schooling in mathematics and science. The education went on from dawn to dusk even at the at the age of five. It is considered that Annabelle tried to protect Ada from her father’s heritage (of poetry, metaphors and imagination).3

“I thank you again for your efforts with my Princess of Parallelograms, who has puzzled you more than the Hypothenuse; in her character she has not forgotten “Mathematics” wherein I used to praise her cunning. Her proceedings are quite rectangular, or rather we are two parallel lines prolonged to infinity side by side but never to meet.” (Byron)2

Ada showed remarkable mathematical abilities and used her imagination to understand and apply mathematical concepts.4 In 1833, she met Charles Babbage, a mathematician, inventor and mechanical engineer, who would would act as an mentor for Ada.5 Ada was fascinated by Babbages ideas, such as his calculating engine (the Difference Engine), and they corresponded over several years.3

During this time, Ada had three children with William Lord King, who she married in 1835. After a four-year pause, she continued her study of mathematics. She studied calculus, matrix algebra and learnt about the Bernoulli numbers. She also translated the description (in French) of Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Seeing the translation, Babbage suggested that Ada should add some notes of her own to the translation.3

The world’s first programmer

“I am in good spirits; for I hope another year will make me really something of an Analyst. The more I study, the more insatiable do I feel my genius for it to be.” (Ada) 6

Ada wrote the Notes, which were published in 1843. She was ambitious in her endeavors and worked diligently. She described the differences between Babbage’s first engine (the Difference Engine) and the Analytical engine. She also discussed possible usages for the engine. To show its usage, Ada included an example of how a program (a function) could be worked out by the engine as opposed to “by human head & hands”. This example, of how the Analytical engine could compute the Bernoulli numbers, have made her to be considered the world’s first programmer.3

“We may say most aptly, that the Analytical Engine weaves Algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.” (Ada) 6

Ada is also known for her foresight and imagination. At the age of 12, she designed a flying machine. She studied the anatomy of birds and investigated materials and sizes for wings. She decided that a steam engine would power the machine “as to carry it up into the air while a person sits on its back.”3 Similarly, she imagined possible uses of the Analytical engine:

“Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expressions and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.” (Ada) 6

Finally, Ada was somewhat of a poet and a thinker, a student of life, science, mathematics and of all their mysteries.

“What is Imagination? We talk muck of Imagination… Imagination I think especially two fold.

First: it is the Combining Faculty… It seizes points in common, between subjects having no apparent connexion…

Imagination is the Discovering Faculty… It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science. It is that which feels & discovers what is, the real which we see not, which exists not for our senses…

Mathematical Science show what is. It is the language of unseen relations between things. But to use & apply that language we must be able to fully to appreciate, to feel, to seize, the unseen, the unconscious.” (Ada) 6

Ada died from cancer in 1852, 36 years old. Ada was a pioneer in computing, and also a visionary, and she is now an inspiration for women in mathematics, science and technology, all over the world. The example of Ada shows that women studied and shaped the fields of mathematics and computer science already in the 19th century.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_Byron 

  2. G.G. Byron & L.A. Marchand, Lord Byron: Selected Letters and Journals, Belknap Press, 1982.  2

  3. B.A. Toole, Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace, An analyst and metaphysician. IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, 18:3, pp. 4–12, 1996.  2 3 4 5

  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ada_Lovelace 

  5. http://www.biography.com/people/ada-lovelace-20825323 

  6. B.A. Toole, Ada, The Enchantress of Numbers: A Selection From the Letters of Lord Byron’s Daughter and Her Description of the First Computer, Strawberry Press, 1992.  2 3 4