Today 11th October is Ada Lovelace Day in honour of the pioneering mathematician, first female computer programmer and daughter of Lord Byron.
Ada’s life and achievements are now marked across the globe as Ada Lovelace Day in celebration of this gifted young Victorian woman. When your father has been famously described by one of his lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb, as “mad, bad and dangerous to know” you know that you will have your work cut out in making your way in life.
Ada Lovelace Day is held every year on the second Tuesday of October. People often ask why Ada Lovelace Day is the day that it is. The explanation is rather mundane: the date is arbitrary, chosen in an attempt to make the day maximally convenient for the most number of people. The organisers have tried to avoid major public holidays, school holidays, exam season, and times of the year when people might be hibernating.
Why not just use Ada’s birthday? Well, Ada was born on 10 December and, in the UK where Ada Lovelace Day is based, December is swamped by Christmas parties, making venue hire tricky and putting us in competition with traditionally unmissable employee booze-ups. Given her tragically early death at the age of 36, it would feel inappropriate to celebrate her death day on 27 November.
Her father George Gordon Byron, Lord Byron, is one of the greatest English poets and a hero of the struggle for Greek Indepence where he died on Greek soil at the age of 36, the same young age at which his only legitimate daughter Ada Lovelace also had her life tragically cut short. I remember the sense of pathos sitting on the bench in Harrow Churchyard dedicated to his daughter Clara Allegra Byron who died in Italy at the age of five. He had her body sent back to England for burial at Harrow where he went to school and where he at one time indicated he wanted to be buried.
Byron separated from his wife a month after Ada was born and left England forever four months later, eventually dying of disease in the Greek War of Independence when Ada was eight years old. Ada’s mother remained bitter towards Lord Byron and promoted Ada’s interest in mathematics and logic in an effort to prevent her from developing what she saw as the insanity seen in her father, but Ada remained interested in him despite this (and was, upon her eventual death, buried next to him at her request).
In time, Ada became fascinated with mechanisms and designed steam flying machines, enjoyed reading the scientific magazines of the time and took a keen interest in the unfolding British Industrial revolution, in stark contrast to the accepted pastimes of young ladies of the period.
In 1833, Ada met Charles Babbage and they worked together to develop The Analytical Engine – an early predecessor of the modern computer. It was through her work with Babbage that she gained prominence and became known as the “first female computer programmer.” Ada Lovelace Day is an international celebration of the achievement – not only that of Ada herself, but all women in science, technology, engineering and maths.
The woman most often known as ‘Ada Lovelace’ was born Ada Gordon in 1815, sole child of the brief and tempestuous marriage of the erratic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, and his mathematics-loving wife Annabella Milbanke.
Fearing that Ada would inherit her father’s volatile ‘poetic’ temperament, her mother raised her under a strict regimen of science, logic, and mathematics. Ada herself from childhood had a fascination with machines– designing fanciful boats and steam flying machines, and poring over the diagrams of the new inventions of the Industrial Revolution that filled the scientific magazines of the time.
At the age of 19 she was married to an aristocrat, William King; when King was made Earl of Lovelace in 1838 his wife became Lady Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. She is generally called Ada Lovelace, which is a little incorrect but saves confusion! She had three children.
in 1833, Lovelace’s mentor, the scientist and polymath Mary Sommerville, introduced her to Charles Babbage, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University who had already attained considerable celebrity for his visionary and perpetually unfinished plans for gigantic clockwork calculating machines. Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace both had somewhat unconventional personalities and became close and lifelong friends. Babbage described her 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,” or an another occasion, as “The Enchantress of Numbers”.
Lovelace was deeply intrigued by Babbage’s plans for a tremendously complicated device he called the Analytical Engine, which was to combine the array of adding gears of his earlier Difference Engine with an elaborate punchcard operating system. It was never built, but the design had all the essential elements of a modern computer.
In 1842 Lovelace translated a short article describing the Analytical Engine by the Italian mathematician (and future Prime Minister of Italy) Luigi Menabrea, for publication in England. Babbage asked her to expand the article, “as she understood the machine so well”. The final article is over three times the length of the original and contains several early ‘computer programs,’ as well as strikingly prescient observations on the potential uses of the machine, including the manipulation of symbols and creation of music. Although Babbage and his assistants had sketched out programs for his engine before, Lovelace’s are the most elaborate and complete, and the first to be published; so she is often referred to as “the first computer programmer”.
Babbage himself “spoke highly of her mathematical powers, and of her peculiar capability — higher he said than of any one he knew, to prepare the descriptions connected with his calculating machine.” He also commented “I then suggested that she add some notes to Menabrea’s memoir, an idea which was immediately adopted. We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced; I suggested several but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process.”
Ada Lovelace died of cancer at 36, a few short years after the publication of “Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator”. The Analytical Engine remained a vision, until Lovelace’s notes became one of the critical documents to inspire Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computers in the 1940s.
Her thwarted potential, and her passion and vision for technology, have made her a powerful symbol for modern women in technology.
Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (née Byron; 10 December 1815 – 27 November 1852) Mathematician and Writer
For another women (and famous Hollywood Actress) who changed the course of science see: Happy 100th Birthday Hedy Lamarr.
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