Contemporary computers have a history that dates back five millennia to the abacus. Great minds, such as the Greek mathematician Archimedes (c.287-212 BC), developed theories that led to modern calculus and, eventually, to the invention of the computer. The devices we are familiar with today emerged during the 20th century, but the first “computer programmer” lived a century earlier. Not only does that surprise many, but the gender of this programmer also raises eyebrows. Augusta Ada King, the Countess of Lovelace, or “The Enchantress of Number”, as the polymath Charles Babbage (1791-1871) called her, went against social norms to study mathematics and receive the accolade of the first computer programmer.
Generally, but incorrectly, known as Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer is gradually earning recognition in the 21st century. In 2009, the non-profit organisation The Ada Initiative marked the second Tuesday of October as the annual Ada Lovelace Day. The goal of this event is to “raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering, and maths,” particularly those written out of history. Whilst their achievements are significant, it is also important to learn about their lives and the obstacles they overcame as women to fulfil their ambitions.
The Honorable Augusta Ada Byron was born on 10th December 1815 in London to Lord and Lady Byron. Lord George Gordon Byron (1788-1824), the renowned poet and politician, expected a “glorious boy” and did not hide his disappointment when Lady Byron gave birth to a girl. He named his daughter after his sister Augusta Leigh (1783-1851), but insisted on calling her by her middle name Ada. Just over a month after the birth, Lord Byron commanded his wife to leave and set about organising a legal separation.
Happy to escape from her immoral husband, Lady Anne Isabella Noel Byron (1792-1860), moved to her parents home in Leicestershire with her 5-week old daughter. She refused to let Byron see his child, not that he protested, and Ada never knew her father. Although Ada lived with her mother, she did not have a loving relationship and spent the majority of her childhood in the care of her grandmother, Lady Judith Milbanke. When in public, Lady Byron acted like the perfect mother, but in private, she did not even mention Ada’s name. In a letter to her mother, Lady Byron wrote, “I talk to it for your satisfaction, not my own, and shall be very glad when you have it under your own.”
Ada was a sickly child, often confined to her bed due to migraine-like headaches. At 14, she contracted measles, which paralysed her legs. In the year that followed, Ada spent her time in bed but kept herself amused by reading about and practising mathematics. Although usually reserved for male students, Ada’s mother insisted she receive lessons in maths and science. Lady Byron feared her daughter becoming an “insane” poet like her ex-husband.
During one of her long bouts of illness, Ada dreamed of flying. Using both her imagination and logic, Ada studied the anatomy of birds, analysing the right proportions between wings and body. She even went as far as to consider suitable materials and wrote about her experiments in a book called Flyology. Ada also envisioned a winged flying machine containing a steam engine for power. Little did she know that 76 years later, the Wright Brothers would take their first flight in a similar construction.
At 16, Ada regained the use of her legs, although she relied on crutches for some time. Evidence suggests she was fully mobile by the age of 18 when she attempted to elope with a male tutor. Since Lady Byron covered up the scandal, the name of the tutor is unknown. Ada had many tutors for mathematics and science, including the English clergyman William Frend (1757-1841) and British physician William King (1786-1865). Augustus De Morgan (1806-71), a mathematician and logician, encouraged Ada’s passion for numbers and noted she had the potential to become “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence.”
Ada’s favourite tutor was Mary Somerville (1780-1872), the Scottish researcher and scientific author, who introduced her to many notable people, including Charles Babbage, Michael Faraday (1791-1867) and Charles Dickens (1812-70). She also met lots of people at Court after she was presented at the age of 17, where she met her future husband Lord William King-Noel, 8th Baron King (1805-93).
Intrigued by Ada’s mathematical prowess, Babbage invited her to view the prototype of his Difference Engine: a type of calculating machine that is described today as the first computer. Fascinated by his work, Ada persuaded Somerville to take her to visit Babbage as often as possible. Ada liked to watch Babbage work while taking notes but soon started to voice suggestions.
Meanwhile, Ada’s social life continued at Court, where she attended many functions and events. Enamoured by her brilliant mind, men considered her “a popular belle of the season”. She caught the eye of the 8th Baron King, whom she married on 8th July 1835, thus becoming Lady King. They honeymooned in Somerset and ten months later welcomed a son, Byron (1836-62). The following year, Ada gave birth to a daughter, Anne Isabella (1837-1917), but became unwell with “a tedious and suffering illness, which took months to cure.” Her third child, Ralph Gordon (1839-1906), was born on 2nd July 1839.
In 1838, Ada learned she was a descendant of the Barons Lovelace, of Hurley in the County of Berks, the last of whom passed away in 1736. The Peerage of England decided to revive the title, making Ada’s husband the Earl of Lovelace and Ada the Countess of Lovelace. It is due to this title that Ada is often mistakenly referred to as Ada Lovelace.
After the birth of her youngest child, Ada returned to working with Babbage. In 1842, the English scientist Charles Wheatstone (1802-75) commissioned the countess to translate an academic paper from French into English. This was a transcript of Babbage’s talk at the University of Turin written by Luigi Menabrea (1809-96), the future Prime Minister of Italy. The papers introduced Babbage’s proposal for another machine, the Analytical Engine, which he described as a simpler version of the Difference Engine.
As well as transcribing Menabrea’s transcript, Ada added notes to the article. She explained what made the hypothetical Analytical Engine different from the Difference Engine and demonstrated how the machine could calculate a series of Bernoulli numbers. These numbers are the result of a complicated formula that only the elitist mathematical brains could fathom. After writing both an explanation and a demonstration of the Analytical Engine’s potential output, Ada’s notes were three times longer than the original article. Although the Analytical Engine has never been built, Ada’s work is regarded as the world’s first published computer programme.
Ada also argued that “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.” In other words, a machine or computer can only work with the input provided by its maker and cannot surpass the knowledge or intelligence of the collective human race. This idea computer scientists continue to debate today during their strive to develop Artificial Intelligence.
As well as numbers, Ada believed the Analytical Engine had the potential to “act upon other things besides number”, for instance, music. Babbage’s machines only used numbers, but Ada believed these digits could represent other entities, such as music tones and letters. The Analytical Engine was never constructed, although British software engineer John Graham-Cumming is determined to build it, so Ada’s theory has not been tested. Yet, 100 years after Ada expressed the idea, computer scientists developed the modern computer using a similar approach.
Despite being a woman, many mathematicians respected Ada, particularly Michael Faraday, who described himself as a supporter of Ada’s work. Unfortunately, science journals published Sketch of the Analytical Engine containing Ada’s translations and appendices under her initials rather than her full name. For decades after her death, the initials hid Ada’s true identity, and many assumed the mathematician was a man.
In 1852, Ada was diagnosed with uterine cancer, with which she suffered in agony for several months. During this time, her mother forbade visits from friends, including Babbage, and encouraged her daughter to turn to religion. On 30th August, Ada confessed something to her husband, which upset him enough to abandon her bedside for the remainder of her life. To date, no one knows what Ada said to cause such a reaction. She eventually passed away on 27th November 1852 at the age of 36. As per her final strange request, she was laid to rest next to her father, a man she never met, at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.
After her death, people remembered Ada more for a series of scandals rather than her mathematical genius. During the 1840s, several rumours of extra-marital affairs surrounded Ada, but more scandalous was her love of gambling. After forming a syndicate with her (male) friends, Ada lost more than £3,000 by betting on horse races. In 1851, she attempted to create a mathematical formula to guarantee successful bets but failed and lost thousands of pounds.
Rumours of Ada’s romantic affairs resurfaced after the reading of her will. Rather than leaving the Byron family heirlooms to her children, she left them to John Crosse, the son of British scientist Andrew Crosse (1784-1855). Most correspondences between Ada and John were destroyed after her death, so the truth of their relationship will never come to light.
Ada’s eldest son Byron became the 12th Baron Wentworth after his grandmother’s death in 1860. Unfortunately, he did not have long to enjoy it before his sudden death two years later, aged 26. The barony passed to Ada’s youngest child, Ralph, who also became the 2nd Earl of Lovelace after his father’s death in 1893. Ralph avoided public life as much as possible and spent his 22nd year in Iceland learning about Icelandic and Norse literature. He also enjoyed mountain climbing and became an accomplished linguist. Rather than becoming a mathematician like his mother, Ralph preferred to write and, shortly before his death, published Astarte: A Fragment of Truth concerning George Gordon Byron, first Lord Byron, which divulged his grandfather’s incestuous nature.
Lady Anne Blunt, Ada’s middle child, married the poet Wilfrid Blunt (1840-1922), with whom she co-founded the horse breeding firm Crabbet Arabian Stud. She travelled extensively around the Middle East purchasing Arabian horses, many of which she brought home to England despite her husband’s protests that the horses preferred warmer climates. After Anne’s death, her only child, Judith Blunt-Lytton (1873-1957), continued the horse breeding business. A descendant, John Lytton (b.1950), is currently a crossbencher in the House of Lords.
Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, did not regain her reputation as an extraordinary mathematician and computer programmer until the 1970s with the production of Childe Byron by playwright Romulus Linney (1930-2011). Unfortunately, this play focused more on the non-existent relationship between Ada and Lord Byron than on her career. Ada’s mathematical genius came to the fore in William Gibson (b.1948) and Bruce Sterling’s (b.1954) 1990 steampunk novel The Difference Engine, and in the 1997 film Conceiving Ada. Other plays and books include Ada and the Engine, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, and The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency. The Countess of Lovelace also appeared as a character in an episode of Doctor Who in 2020.
Dying at such a young age, Ada did not have the opportunity to receive praise for her work, nor did she know how much it would change the future. As a woman, it is unlikely she would have gained adequate recognition at the time, as is the case for many of her sex. She finally received the long due commemoration over a century after her death. In 1980, the United States Department of Defense named their computer language “Ada” in her memory, and the following year, the Association for Women in Computing inaugurated its Ada Lovelace Award. Also named after the mathematician is the Lovelace Medal for the British Computer Society, Ada College in Tottenham Hale, the Ada Initiative, and the Ada Developers Company.
In November 2020, Trinity College Dublin announced the plan to add four busts of famous women to their library, which until now has contained only statues of men. Ada Countess of Lovelace will make history once again alongside Rosalind Franklin (1920-58), Augusta Gregory (1852-1932), and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97).
It is a great shame that Ada Countess of Lovelace died before she could develop more groundbreaking theories in computer science. It is an even greater shame that, for a hundred years, her gender was hidden behind her initials, leading thousands to believe technology a man’s science. Although she did not build a machine or get the chance to test her hypothetical programme, Ada’s genius ideas greatly assisted the development of modern computers.
“They say behind every great man there’s a woman,” and this is indeed true in the professional relationship between Babbage and Lovelace. Ada’s “poetical science” mindset asked questions about Babbage’s machines, and she developed visions that none of the top scientists in the industry could imagine. Whereas they saw what was in front of them, Ada realised the potential of such machines and, as we can confirm today, she was right.