Ada Lovelace

Portrait of Ada Lovelace (2016) by Deeds Davis.

Article by Anna Xambó
Jan 16, 2017

Ada Lovelace is known as the first computer scientist from her work with the mathematician Charles Babbage on the Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Her published notes (Menabrea, 1843) on this seminal general-purpose computer included what is referred to as the first algorithms of computer programs. She also envisioned potential uses of the Analytical Engine beyond pure mechanical calculations. For example, applications to creative domains such as music: “the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent” (Toole, 1992). Thus, Lady Lovelace is also considered an influential figure in computer music.

Augusta Ada Byron, later Countess of Lovelace, was born in London on December 10, 1815, and passed away on November 27, 1852, at the young age of 36 years old. Her mother, Anne Isabella Milbanke, later Lady Byron, was a cultivated and strict woman with special interest and facility with mathematics. Her father, Lord Byron, was a renowned Romantic poet who liked to live pushing the boundaries of morality. Her parents got divorced when she was one month old. Lord Byron passed away when she was 11 years old. According to Toole (1992), Ada synthesized the two opposite stances of her parents in a poetical science vision of the world, which was unique for reinterpreting the Analytical Engine.

Since a young age, Ada was often ill, which did not stop her to continuously learn. She spent her childhood under the care of her mother, who made sure to give her an exquisite education by the hand of excellent tutors. Ada also received musical education, and learned to play the guitar and the harp. As reported in Toole (1992), most of her education was by exchanging missives with her tutors (e.g., William Frend, William and Mary King, Mary Somerville, Augustus DeMorgan), what we currently refer to ‘distance learning’. Thus, she discussed by letter classical mathematical texts and ideas, such as the propositions from Euclid’s Elements. In turn, she later taught mathematics, also by letter, to two young female students, Annabella and Olivia (Livy) Acheson, daughters of Lady Gosford, a friend of Lady Byron. Ada married William King in 1835, later Lord Lovelace, and became mother of three children.

Ada met Charles Babbage and his Difference Engine in 1833, when she was 17 years old and Babbage was a well-known mathematician and inventor of 41 years old, who became Ada’s closest friend over the years (Toole, 1992). A year later, Babbage conceptualized the Analytical Engine. In 1840, Babbage went to Torino to discuss the Analytical Engine with Italian scientists, including the Italian mathematician and future Italy’s prime minister Luigi Federico Menabrea, who published in French “Notions sur la machine analytique de M. Charles Babbage” (1842). At that time, Ada began to study mathematics with De Morgan. A year later of Menabrea’s publication, Ada’s translation and Notes were published (Menabrea, 1843). The Notes were written as per suggestion of Babbage, and added extensive explanations to Menabrea’s text. This document has become exemplary in the history of digital computing. It details a machine from a mathematical perspective, which was never built due to Babbage’s problems in finding funding. Babbage was already working on different algorithms for the engine, which were illustrated by Ada as instructions or machine states displayed in charts from supposed data coming from punched cards. These representations are considered as the first documented examples of computer programs, and ways of representing them! Ada also created the ‘algorithm’ involving the Bernoulli numbers. Her program included conditional branching and two loops, resulting in the most complex program of the collection included in the Notes (Kim and Toole, 1999).

Ada Lovelace’s impact is huge. Her work inspired the programming language Ada, a multi-purpose language. The symposium Ada Lovelace, celebrating Ada Lovelace’s 200th birthday was held in Oxford in 2015, with discussions and activities including her work with the Analytical Engine related to music. There is even the international Ada Lovelace Day, which aims to bring more girls into Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) by making more visible women’s work in STEM.

Ada helped to bring into existence the computer as we know it today. She brought a “poetical science” approach to research where imagination meets science, an admired approach still needed today to keep progressing in science and music technology.

References

Kim, Eugene Eric, and Toole, Betty Alexandra (1999) Ada and the First Computer. Scientific American. 280 (1999): 76-81.

Menabrea, Luigi Federico (1843) Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage [by L.F. Menabrea, translated, and appended with additional notes, by Augusta Ada, Countess of Lovelace]. London: Richard and John E. Taylor.

Toole, Betty A. (1992) Ada, The Enchantress of Numbers. Strawberry Press, Mill Valley, California.

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