KEYWORDS: Ada Lovelace, Mathematics, Logic, Computer Programming, Computers
SHE THOUGHT IT
Ada Lovelace was the first computer programmer. She described her approach as “poetical science” (Toole, 1998, p. 234-235) and herself as an “Analyst (& Metaphysician)”. She translated Luigi Menabrea’s article about the analytical engine invented by Charles Babbage between 1842 and 1843, and she complemented it with some of her own writing, called simply Notes. Those Notes are the prototype of the first computer program, an algorithm designed to be executed by a machine.
Ada was born in London on December 10, 1815. She was the daughter of Anne Isabella Malbanke, known as Lady Wentworth, and the famous poet Lord Byron. Byron was disappointed by her birth because he was expecting a “glorious boy”. Her parents divorced a few months after her birth and Ada never saw her father again. He died when she was 8. Ada was a fragile child; she was often ill and suffered from migraines and temporary paralysis. Since Lady Wentworth feared that her child had inherited her father’s temperament and supposed madness, she stimulated Ada’s interest in mathematics and logics. At the age of 13, she had the ambition of constructing wings based on the anatomy of birds. At the age of 14, she was already competent in mathematics, astronomy, Latin and music. In 1834, Ada was introduced to the work of Charles Babbage, now regarded as “the father of the computer.” by her tutor, the Scottish astronomer and mathematician Mary Somerville (1780-1872). Later, she would develop a very close professional relationship and friendship with Charles Babbage. In 1835, Ada married William King, who was made Earl of Lovelace three years later, so Ada in turn became Countess of Lovelace. They had three children: Byron (1836), Anne Isabella (1837) and Ralph Gordon (1839). In the 1840s she was at the centre of various scandals due to her addiction to gambling. In 1843, she fell ill and her mother treated her with opium, morphine and alcohol, and by the end of the year she was dependent on those drugs. During her last months, she was abandoned by her husband, and was close only to her mother, who influenced her into a religious transformation. She died of uterine cancer at the age of 36, the same age as her father, and was buried next to him at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene.
SCIENTIFIC COLLABORATION AND RECOGNITION
Ada Lovelace translated Luigi Menabrea’s article Sketch of the analytical engine invented by Charles Babbage, Esq.from French into English, adding her own notes. Menabrea’s work was a theoretical and practical description of Babbage’s latest concept. Ada’s notes had about three times the length of the original memoir. In her notes, she described a method for the engine to repeat a series of instructions, which computer programmes use today. Because of that, she is considered to be the first computer programmer. Her ideas inspired Alan Turing to work on the first modern computers a century later. She published her work in an English science journal in 1843. One of the supporters of her work was the scientist Michael Faraday. Her innovations in the field of mathematicians and computer programming, according to the Babbage specialist Doron Swade are that, “numbers could represent entities other than quantity. So once you had a machine for manipulating numbers, if those numbers represented other things, letters, musical notes, then the machine could manipulate symbols of which number was one instance, according to rules. It is this fundamental transition from a machine which is a number cruncher to a machine for manipulating symbols according to rules that is the fundamental transition from calculation to computation – to general-purpose computation – and 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.” (Fuegi& Francis, 2003) Unfortunately, the design of the analytical engine was far too advanced for the engineering of the time. Ada was also interested in translating cerebral phenomena into mathematical equations, as demonstrated by Calculus of the Nervous System.
SHE SAID IT
I do not believe that my father was (or ever could have been) such a poet as I shall be an Analyst & Metaphysician, for with me the two go together indissolubly.
cited by Moseley, Maboth. Irascible Genius: The Life of Charles Babbage. London, 1964, p. 182.
Nothing but a very close and intense application to subjects of a scientific nature now seems at all to keep my imagination from running wild, or to stop the void which seems to be left in my mind.
cited by Seymour, Miranda. In Byron’s Wake. London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2018.
THEY SAID IT
[Ada is as] that Enchantress who has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects could have exerted over it.
Charles Babbage, cited by Seymour, Miranda. In Byron’s Wake. London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2018.
Graphic Novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer, 2015, by Sydney Padua.
An episode of the TV Series Great Minds with Dan Harmon (2016) is dedicated to Lovelace.
A legend says Ada Lovelace was the first one to use the word “bug” in the context of computers.
There’s a computer programming language called Ada in her honour. It was created in 1979 by the U. S. Navy.
Alic, Margaret. Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity to the Late Nineteenth Century. London: The Women’s University Press, 1986.
Charman-Anderson, Suw, “Ada Lovelace: Victorian computing visionary”, (n/d). URL <https://findingada.com/shop/a-passion-for-science-stories-of-discovery-and-invention/ada-lovelace-victorian-computing-visionary/>. Accessed by the last time on 14 December 2017.
Fuegi, J; Francis, J. “Lovelace & Babbage and the creation of the 1843 ‘notes'”. Annals of the History of Computing, IEEE, 25 (4): 16–26, doi:10.1109/MAHC.2003.1253887, 2003.
Moore, Doris Langley. Ada Countess of Lovelace: Byron’s Legitimate Daughter. London: John Murray, New York: Harper & Row, 1977.
Moseley, Maboth. Irascible Genius: The Life of Charles Babbage. London, 1964. Rpt. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1970.
Seymour, Miranda. In Byron’s Wake. London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2018.
Sommervile, Mary. Personal Recollections, revd., Nature 9, pp. 417-18,1874.
Toole, Betty Alexandra. Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers: A Selection from the Letters of Ada Lovelace, and her Description of the First Computer. UK: Strawberry Press, 1992.
Toole, Betty Alexandra. Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers: Prophet of the Computer Age. UK: Strawberry Press, 1998.