Ada Lovelace: the Enchantress of Numbers

By Jaime Seltzer

“That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal; as time will show.” – Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace’s childhood was profoundly weird. Her father was the poet Lord Byron, who was infamously identified as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Despite his reputation or because of it, he was successful in wooing the clever and principled Anna Isabella Mirbank, whom he nicknamed the Princess of Parallelograms (no – really). Once they married, Annabel came to know Byron better: he was ruled by his passions, prone to dark moods, violent behavior and adultery. Therefore, his clever, principled wife did the clever, principled thing: she scooped up her newborn daughter, Ada, and bolted.

Annabel deeply feared that Ada would be influenced by her ex-husband’s ‘mad blood’, and applied a unique remedy to counter its influence: mathematics and music. When Byron was dying, he asked after Ada by letter. Annabel’s reply was that Ada was “not devoid of imagination” but that she used her mathematical knowledge as the focus for that imagination.

Her ‘Note G’ described how to instruct the Analytical Engine to produce a series of Bernoulli numbers. That makes Ada the world’s first computer programmer and the world’s first software designer.

In fact, Ada’s flights of fancy sometimes drove her mother to distraction. At the age of twelve, Ada had decided that she wished to fly, and for a brief while all of her vast mathematical training and her clockwork brain were focused on the problem. She drew designs of gliders and did studies on the properties of different materials, including silk and paper, to see if they could be made into Ada-sized wings. She collected all of her data in an illustrated guide she named Flyology, so it is pretty clear that Annabel did not quite manage to stamp out Ada’s creative spirit. Ada would later write a paper called What is Imagination? in 1841, where she proposed that imagination was an investigative and intellectual trait that could be used in the service of science.

Annabel and Ada were quite well-to-do, and moved in elite and intellectual circles in London, so there were many with whom Ada could discuss science and mathematics. However, the level at which a young lady was expected to be familiar with the sciences was nominal, and Ada found few with whom she could discuss mathematics at a deeper level.

She found her conversational partner in Charles Babbage, Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge. Babbage was working on something he called a Difference Engine, a calculating machine – in short, the world’s first computer, albeit on paper. (Babbage famously finished neither of his two prototypes.) The pair met at Ada’s first-ever grown-up party, when she was only seventeen. Babbage was thunderstruck when he realized that Ada could not just keep up with his ideas but immediately began to extrapolate in wider and wider arcs away from his original conceptions.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace and her Women in Science card.

A few days later, Ada and her mother visited Babbage to see a partially-finished prototype. Ada began to exchange letters with Babbage, beginning a friendship and intellectual partnership that would continue for nearly two decades.

Despite the fact that Babbage never completed his designs, Ada promised Babbage she would translate a treatise on his machine from French into English. Her ‘translation’ was two and half times longer than the original French version, as Ada strived to explain the incredible potential of computers to a public who had never seen or heard of one ever before. (Amongst other things, she compared a computer to a loom.) Her translation explained in readily-understandable ways the implications of such a device by relating it to real-world capabilities, such as producing computer-generated music. In addition, her ‘Note G’ described how to instruct the Analytical Engine to produce a series of Bernoulli numbers. That makes Ada the world’s first computer programmer and the world’s first software designer.

Ada was well aware that she was working in a fledgling field: the document clearly separated what she and Babbage are discussing from studies in mathematics, calling computing ‘the science of operations’. The programming language Ada is named in her honor.

In 1835, Ada married William King; King inherited a title a few years later, and Ada became the Countess of Lovelace. Thus, Ada was a Lady, a programmer, a musician, a mathematician – but, her mother would have been thankful to know, not a poet.

References
Beaton, K. Young Ada Lovelace. In Hark! A Vagrant. Retrieved October 6, 2015, from http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=298
Charman, S. Lovelace: The Origin. In The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. Retrieved October 6, 2015, from http://sydneypadua.com/2dgoggles/lovelace-the-origin-2/
Maisel, M. and Smart, L. (n.d.) Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace. In The San Diego Supercomputing Center Presents: Women In Science, A Selection of 16 Significant Contributors. Retrieved from http://www.sdsc.edu/ScienceWomen/lovelace.html
Menabrea, L. F. (1842). Sketch of The Analytical Difference Engine Invented by Charles Babbage, With notes upon the Memoir by the Translator, Ada Augusta, Countess of Lovelace. In Bibliothèque Universelle de Genève. (Vol. 82). Retrieved October 6, 2015, from http://www.fourmilab.ch/babbage/sketch.html
Morais, B. (2013, October 15). Ada Lovelace, the First Tech Visionary. The New Yorker. Retrieved October 6, 2015, from http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/ada-lovelace-the-first-tech-visionary

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