I am studying Software Engineering and my professors frequently mention Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage in their lectures. Out of curiosity I looked Ada up and was astonished at her work. She anticipated modern computing and artificial intelligence more than a hundred years before they came to be. Augusta Ada Byron, the first Countess of Lovelace, was born on 10 Dec 1815 in Piccadilly, London to the poet Lord George Byron and Annabella Isabella (Anne) Millibanke, 11th Baroness Wentworth. Ada was the only child of their short marriage.
Her parents split only a month after her birth and she never met her father as he left and eventually died helping the Greeks become independent from the Ottoman Empire when she was eight.
Her mother, Lady Byron, had sole custody of Ada and she was a forceful and controlling parent. Anne forced Ada to lie still for long periods of time to develop “self-control”. Her mother was insistent that Ada be different from her father.
Ada had a mental illness like her father and her mother used an unusual amount of education, specifically math, to combat this. Anne was taught in mathematics and was even called ‘The Princess of Parallelograms’ by her husband and she transferred this love to her daughter. Anne spent little time with Ada, but she made sure she had many tutors and met with many of the leading intellectuals of the time. One of Ada’s mathematician tutors was Augustus de Morgan. He frequently mentioned her ability to his scientific friends, building her credibility within this network.
This made her work possible as way before women were able to pursue degrees, she was working with many of the leading scientists of the time.
On the 8th of July 1835, Ada Lovelace married the wealthy William King, 8th Baron King. He owned a large estate in Ockham Park, Surrey, a summer retreat in Somerset, an estate beside Loch Torridon in Scotland, and a large house in London and was a weak-willed man, no match for her strong-willed personality. Together they had two sons and a daughter: Byron King-Noel, Ralph King-Millibanke, and Anne Blunt. King became an Earl in 1838 and Ada became the Countess of Lovelace. This allowed her to be able to go after her own interests.
In 1833 Mary Somerville, a mutual friend, introduced Ada to Charles Babbage. Though he was much older than her, they became lifelong friends. During a visit to his workshop, she first saw his Difference Engine, a mechanical computer. Later in 1842 she translated a French memoir about his second attempt, the Analytical Engine, from Louis Menebrea. She realized that with a few changes this computer could do more than the simple calculations Babbage intended it for. It could execute any logical set of instructions including letters, numbers, and looping. It took her nine months of hard work and she added her own notes, which were much longer than the memoir. These notes included her first computer program and eventually made her famous.
Babbage never created either machine and Ada never got to test her theory, but together they invented software. Ada only used her initials (A.A.L.) in the publication of the translated memoir. Yet after her death, people claimed that Babbage had written the algorithm and this is still a common occurrence in the STEM field today. [this happens to many women in STEM] She was ill several times including cholera, asthma, and digestive issues. She was issued painkillers that included laudanum and opium, which gave her mood swings and hallucinations. As her life came to an end, she was still in pain but she was still intellectually involved in the scientific community until she died of uterine cancer on November 27, 1852 in Marylebone, London.
Babbage may have called her “the Enchantress of Numbers” yet the importance of her work was not realized 1950s and she was given many post humorous honors. She was truly a woman beyond her time and it is stunning how she was able to understand such abstract concepts far before acceptance. It is logical to imagine that if shown our technology today, Ada would quickly grasp their workings even though many people today cannot even understand them. A new programming language has been named “Ada” after her and Ada Lovelace Day is on October 14th.
Ada may have led a short life, but she battled challenges of all kinds and still her work impacts people more than a century later. That is the kind of effect people aspire to have. She survived her tyrannical mother, her lack of father, her mental illness, climbed the social stratification system, ignored the sexism, raised three kids, did research, overcame many physical illnesses, and invented programming all before dying of cancer at age 37. Babbage may have come up with the computer, but it wasn’t even yet working and it was Ada who saw its true potential and proved that women can attain the heights in science and technology as well as any man.