Ada Lovelace – Pioneer ‘Computer Scientist’

by, Jo Carol Hebert

Who is Ada Lovelace? (December, 1815-November, 1852)

“I believe myself to possess a singular combination of qualities exactly fitted to make me pre-eminently a discoverer of the hidden realities of nature.” Ada Lovelace

A Privileged Life

Lady Anne Byron

Augusta Ada Byron’s father was Lord Byron, one of England’s greatest poets of the Romantic Age. He left England shortly after Ada’s birth, lived a disreputable lifestyle, and died in Greece when she was 8 years old. Her mother left her ‘upbringing’ to a maternal grandmother, who died when Ada was 7 years old. 

Lady Anne Byron was a Mathematician. She took great interest in Ada’s education. Women could not go to universities in the early 19th century. But, young girls of nobility were privately tutored in music and French, the socially accepted virtues of a young girl’s education to prepare them for a fortuitous marriage. Her mother especially emphasized Science and Mathematics. Lady Byron thought that these practical studies would fortify the child’s mind against any traits of her father’s ‘poetic’ madness.

A Frail Body and a Brilliant Mind

“Understand as well as I may, my comprehension can only be an infinitesimal fraction of all I want to understand.- Ada Lovelace

Wealth, privilege, and social status do not guarantee health. As a child, Ada was frequently ill and these health issues continued throughout her life. None of these challenges deterred the working of her inquisitive mind.

After watching the miracle of birds flying, she had an idea for a flying machine. She experimented with ‘mechanical wings’. Only 12-years old, she wrote down aerodynamic concepts in a piece called ‘Flyology’. Her intelligence was noticed in family and social gatherings. Her elite position gave her access to the royal court where she mingled with the cultural influencers of the day.

A Time For All things

The period of the 1800s was a time of innovation and invention. Ada’s lifetime was after the Industrial Revolution that had introduced machines and factories. This mass manufacturing of goods began to replace the formerly hand-crafted products of skilled craftsmen.

Queen Victoria‘s began her 63-year reign of ‘peace and prosperity’. James Watts had just invented the ‘steam engine’. Railways were becoming the mode of transportation over ‘horse and carriage’. Multitudes were leaving rural life and flooding into overcrowded cities to seek employment in the factories. Charles Dickens would soon write “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .” the first line of his epic book, A Tale of Two Cities.

A Meeting of Mathematical Minds

“One essential object is to choose that arrangement which shall tend to reduce to a minimum the time necessary for completing the calculation.” Ada Lovelace

Charles Babbage

At 17-years of age, Ada and her mother became acquainted with Charles Babbage, a prominent professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University (this position formerly was held by Isaac Newton, and more recently, by Stephen Hawking). At that time, the ‘calculating machine’ was in its ‘golden days’, computing numbers by punching keys. Babbage was concerned about the errors of hand calculations and was working on the idea of a ‘difference engine’ that would ‘compute’ numbers more accurately. 

He was impressed by the mathematical genius of Ada and gave her a copy of the blueprints of his ‘first computer’ to study. Young Ada had a remarkable ability to grasp the concept of the new digital machine. Although unusual for women, Ada and her mother visited factories to study the technology of machines, particularly the weaving patterns of the looms that produced fabric materials.

(Babbage never had the funds to complete his project to a functional stage and left the conclusion of the matter to the future when he died in 1871. His concept was finally realized in London in 2002. The Difference Engine No. 2, true to the drawings of the original design, was completed.  It had 8,000 parts, weighed 5 tons, and was 11 feet long).

A Husband and Children

Ada was 19 when she married William King, who became the Earl of Lovelace. She acquired the  highly prestigious title, pomp, and circumstances of Countess Ada Lovelace. She had three children and for the next years devoted her time to their welfare.

A Patient Passion

“Forget this world and all its troubles and if possible its multitudinous Charlatans…everything in short but the Enchantress of Numbers.”  Ada Lovelace

In 1841, Ada returned to the study of mathematics under the mentoring of Mary Somerville, a brilliant mathematician of the times. Ada remembered Charles Babbage’s concepts. She translated A Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage.

Babbage had updated and improved the version of the ‘difference engine’. The publication was written in French by Luigi Menabrea (Italian General, Mathematician, and Prime Minister of Italy (1867-69). In her translation into English, she boldly added her own enhancing commentaries.

A Visionary Outlook

“A new, a vast, and a powerful language is developed for the future use of analysis, in which to wield its truths, so that these may become of more speedy and practical application for the purposes of mankind  . . . .” Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace could see further applications of the ‘computer’, other than math calculations. Charles Babbage recognized a kindred soul in his dream of math machines and invited her to publish the Menabrea translation, Her notations were three times more volume than the original material. Countess Ada Lovelace eventually wrote the first ‘algorithm’ (instructional language program of a computer) for the Babbage Analytical Engine to process. 

She saw the possibilities of more versatile functions of the ‘computer’, including musical text, sound, and pictures translated to digital form and manipulated by the machine. 

Death Comes Early

“ . . . is thy face like thy mother’s, my fair child? Ada, sole daughter of my house and home. Lord Byron

Her absentee father waxed poetically, if not too late, about the daughter he never knew. After thirty-six brief but vibrant years, Ada Lovelace died in London in 1852. Lord Byron also had died at the age of thirty-six. Her mother lived to see the strenuous plans of separating daughter and father thwarted. Ada, by request, was buried next to her wayward father. Merging the creative genius of her father with the logic of her analytical mind, she was quoted in life as saying, “if you can’t give me poetry, can’t you give me ‘poetical science?”

Beautiful Dreamer

“I have 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 cause it to go up in the air with a person on its back.” – Ada Lovelace

Fame Comes Lately

In a time when women were not publicly acknowledged for their many personal contributions to culture, Ada’s ideas, contributions, translation, and writings drew little attention. Other associates took credit for her insights. She credited her ground-breaking and world-changing work simply by her initials, A.A.L. 

Thank You, Augusta ‘Ada’ Lovelace

  • 1979. U.S Department of Defense named a major computer program ‘Ada’.
  • 1998. British Computer Society presents an Ada Lovelace Medal annually.
  • 2009. Ada Lovelace Day, sponsored by volunteer groups internationally, to encourage women in S.T.E.M educational programs in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math

*Here’s a vocational tip: The future looks bright for getting a j.o.b. (job) in ‘I.T.’ (Information Technology). These jobs will be in high demand and pay ‘big bucks’. 

*Here are some books for kids who LOVE Math!

  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar. (1969). Classic beginner counting book. Ages Baby-3. Eric Carle
  • Ada Lovelace. Board Book. (2018). Ages 2-6. Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara.
  • Ada Lovelace: Poet of Science. (2016). 4-8. Diane Stanley.
  • Programming Pioneer Ada Lovelace. (2016). Ages 7-11. Valerie Bodden.

*You might also be interested in: Reaching for the Moon: Autobiography of NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson. (2019). Ages 10+.

Categories: Biographies, History

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