By Laura Boness
The Countess of Lovelace sounds like the sort of person you’d find at a fancy ball rather than talking with the leading mathematician of the day and helping him design the first computer. Ada Lovelace did both.
Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, is the world’s first computer programmer. Image: Yiying Lu
Ada Lovelace was the only child of a brief marriage between Anne Isabelle (Annabella) Milbanke and the famous Romantic poet Lord Byron. Only a month after she was born (December 10, 1815), her mother asked for a separation from her husband.
Four months later Byron left England for the Continent, leaving rumours of love affairs and other scandals behind. He died in Greece at the age of 36, when Ada was just eight years old. Not surprisingly, Annabella didn’t want her daughter to take after him and made sure the little girl received an education in mathematics, logic and music.
Back then, maths and logic were considered an unusual education for a female, but Annabella, who Byron once called his “princess of parallelograms“, had also had some training in this field, and shared her love of numbers with her daughter.
Ada had a fascination with machines from childhood. She enjoyed designing steam flying machines and fanciful boats as well as reading scientific magazines. But she and her mother moved in London society, where the gentlemen often spent their time pursuing their interests in astronomy, botany or geology, and women were not usually encouraged to have any interest in the sciences.
Fortunately for Ada, she was introduced by Mary Somerville, one of her tutors, to Charles Babbage, a professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. Ada was 17 and Babbage work mesmerised her. He thought highly of her and 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 simply as ‘the Enchantress of Numbers’.
Ada was originally fascinated by Babbage’s plans for a Difference Engine, which was designed to produce useful sets of numbers without the errors produced by humans, and his later designs for an Analytical Engine, a general all-purpose computer. The latter was never built, but had a similar operating mechanism to that of a modern computer – it came with a memory, called the store, capable of holding 1,000 numbers of 50 decimal digits each.
The programs and data were essentially punch cards, which were based on the method used to direct mechanical looms at the time and would provide the information the machine needed via what Babbage described as a ‘reader’. For output, it would have a bell, a curve plotter and a printer, while the Mill would perform all of the arithmetic processing – all powered by steam.
In 1842, an Italian mathematician, Louis Menebrea, published a memoir in French on the subject of the Analytical Engine and Babbage decided to enlist a translator. By this time, Ada had become the Countess of Lovelace. She had been married to William King, who had become the Earl of Lovelace in 1838, for seven years and had three children under the age of eight. But she took on the task of first translating the article for publication in England in 1842, then expanding on the topic to explain how this engine differed from the original plans for a Difference Engine.
The final result, ‘Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator’, was three times the length of the original article and contains several early computer programs and observations on possible uses for the machine such as the manipulation of symbols and the creation of music. Babbage and his assistant had already sketched out plans for this machine, but Ada’s were the most elaborate and the first to be published, earning her the title of the first computer programmer.
Sadly, she didn’t live to see the engine completed; she died at the age of 36 and was buried next to her father in the Church of St Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottingham. After her death, the analytical engine remained a concept until her notes became one of the critical documents that inspired Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computers in the 1940s.
Did you know…
A computer programming language developed by the US Department of Defense is named ADA in her honour.