Celebrating Ada Lovelace, the World's First Computer Programmer

Lauren Mullin

Introducing Ada

Every year, the second Tuesday of October marks Ada Lovelace Day. This global celebration was created in 2009 to honour the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematic (STEM) disciplines. Ada Lovelace herself was a pioneering 19th century mathematician and visionary widely credited with publishing the world’s first computer programme. Although many have a passing familiarity with the holiday’s namesake, there is so much more of a story worth telling about this complex and unique individual. Augusta Ada Byron was born on the 10th of December 1815 in London to the infamous Romantic poet, Lord Byron, and his much-affronted wife, Annabella Milbanke. Celebrated in his time and beyond for his striking volumes of poetry, George Gordon, the sixth Lord Byron, had endured a childhood sadly marked by neglect and abuse. By the time Byron met Ada’s mother, he had achieved fame from his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, as well as his debauched lifestyle. Annabella had a starkly different upbringing in a stable home with wealthy, loving, and progressive parents. She had been provided with a stellar education igniting a keen interest in mathematics that would no doubt influence her future child. The courtship of Annabella by Byron has widely been attributed to his deep financial debts and Annabella’s own significant family wealth. The couple indeed proved to be an incompatible match, which was not helped by Lord Byron’s open extramarital affairs, including one with his half-sister. Young Ada was shrouded in scandal at just a handful of weeks old when her mother fled the tumultuous Byron family home. Lord Byron soon left England for continental Europe, where he died at age 36, never seeing his only legitimate child again. Raised under her mother’s diligent and at times stifling watch, Ada also received an exceptional education for a girl in the early 19th century. Ada demonstrated a keen practical talent in engineering and mechanics from a young age—attempting to create a steam-powered flying machine based on her detailed observations of birds. Perhaps scarred from her failed marriage with the passionate but tumultuous Lord Byron, Annabella took pains to squash what she saw as detrimental creative tendencies in Ada. As such, the flying machine proposed by Ada was not met with approval. Interestingly, Annabella saw education in mathematics a way to focus Ada’s mind and steer it safely away from the imaginative thinking she so deeply feared. Due to Annabella’s restrictive grip on her daughter’s life, Ada experienced an intellectually enriched but socially limited youth. She also encountered hardship and fell seriously ill for roughly three years as a teenager, eventually recovering shortly before coming out into society as a young woman available for marriage. The Byron ladies kept impressive company, including the Scottish mathematician and astronomer, Mary Somerville, who was one of the early 19th century’s leading mathematical thinkers. Shortly after Ada was presented at court, Ada and her mother began attending evening soirees and society events with Mrs. Somerville and other great minds of the day.
Celebrating Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer
The best-known image of August Ada Lovelace, painted ca. 1840 by Alfred Edward Chalon. (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Science Museum Group. Portrait of Ada, Countess of Lovelace. 1995-796Science Museum Group Collection Online. Accessed October 28, 2023. Portrait of Ada, Countess of Lovelace | Science Museum Group Collection)

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Celebrating Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer
Punched cards used to create textile patterns with the Jacquard Loom, displayed at the Silk Museum in Macclesfield, UK. Attached to each punch card displayed is a small sample of the resulting fabric design. (Source: photograph by author)

Ada’s Next Chapter: Charles Babbage and the Analytical Engine

It was at one of these soirees when Ada was 17 that she met the wealthy mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage, himself aged 41. What would grow to be a life-long and meaningful friendship between kindred spirits was started by Ada’s fascination with Babbage’s inventions. Around the time Ada first met Babbage in 1833, he had been working on an invention called the Difference Engine for about 10 years. Babbage’s goal was to create a machine that could automatically carry out logarithmic and trigonometric functions. The Difference Engine was a radical concept, ideally producing rapid and error-free calculations—something which caught the attention of the British government, which had financed Babbage’s idea. Following their initial introduction, Ada and her mother were invited by Babbage to see his partially complete Difference Engine in action. Although the Difference Engine was ultimately never brought to fruition, Babbage subsequently envisaged an even more ambitious device—the Analytical Engine. His earliest notes on the project appear in 1834, roughly a year after he and Ada first met. This radical invention concept (more on that soon) has been recognized now as the world’s first mechanical computer. Babbage had been inspired by the Jacquard loom technology, developed by Joseph-Marie Jacquard and patented in 1803. The Jacquard loom was a revolutionary technology in which a series of punched cards guided various silk threads in specific patterns to rapidly weave beautiful silk fabrics. There often were over 2,000 cards per design, resulting in ornate patterned textiles. Based on the loom’s card concept and the increased speed of high-quality silk fabric production it afforded, Babbage devised a similar automated system for working out solutions to complex mathematical equations. Babbage’s Analytical Engine design was limited to the technologies available in the first half of the 19th century. The mechanics Babbage described included the Jacquard-inspired punched cards to guide the operation of the Analytical Engine. Cogwheel components were to be lifted by power transmission rods and moved to other parts of the Engine. The proposed size of the Engine was massive—roughly the size of a modern-day van. Though difficult to envisage in form, it had in concept components that we would now recognise in modern computers: advanced computing power, memory, branching and loops, and even an associated printer. Babbage discussed the mechanics and plans for the Analytical Engine readily and often, but Ada genuinely shared in the vision for what the invention could do, and she became one of the most knowledgeable people in the world on the Analytical Engine. Between in-person visits and numerous letters, Ada and Babbage built what has been viewed as one of the great partnerships in the history of computer science. Concurrent with her and Babbage’s correspondence, Ada’s life followed a paradoxically conventional and exceptional path for a woman of her time. Marrying “well” at age 19 to William King, who eventually became the 1st Earl of Lovelace, she had three children in as many years. Lovelace would prove to be a supportive, albeit somewhat boring, spouse for Ada, who encouraged her scientific pursuits. Filling a deep need for mental stimulation outside of the domestic and social sphere, she enlisted as a personal tutor the esteemed mathematician, Augustus De Morgan. She was voracious in her studies, which concerned De Morgan in so far as its impact on her health. Although she was clearly dedicated to the subject, her tutor noted that she would not have likely been top of the class in a traditional setting such as Cambridge. He also noted (with some of the aforementioned concern for her well-being) her strong desire to push beyond the state of current mathematical knowledge. Overall, De Morgan denigrated her prospects in mathematics due to her sex. He was very much echoing the unfair realities of the time. Fast forward several years, and an opportunity presented itself to Ada which would lead to her most memorable contribution. It was Ada’s intimate understanding of the Analytical Engine that prompted Babbage’s associate Charles Wheatstone to enlist her help: in 1842, Babbage had given a lecture at the University of Turin, Italy, about the Analytical Engine. An Italian engineer named Luigi Federico Menabrea had been in attendance and was fascinated with Babbage’s invention. He soon after published his notes from the talk in a well-respected technical journal. Ada was asked initially to simply translate the work from its published French, but would go on to add corrections and her own extensive commentary, arranged in sections from Notes A to G. Her contributions were three times as long as the original text. It was in these notes that she demonstrated not only her solid mathematical comprehension but also described what we would now recognise as a computer programme. This can be found in Note G, where Ada described in detail how the Analytical Engine could be prompted to carry out complex calculations, such as deriving Bernoulli numbers independently. She also explained her vision of the Analytical Engine’s potential to process abstract concepts as symbols, a revolutionary idea that was many decades ahead of her time. Furiously writing back and forth with one another, Babbage encouraged Ada to pursue her additions and commentary in these notes. Babbage rightly credited Ada with her contributions to the notes and translation, stating in his autobiography that she had performed nearly all the algebraic equations, and even had corrected his only calculations regarding the Bernoulli numbers. Numerous letters between the two exist today, detailing the vision and high aptitude both parties brought to the table, which was crystallised in the Menabrea paper notes. Despite this explicit evidence of Ada’s skills and work, some modern commentators have unfairly questioned the extent of her input and the extent of her own skills. Sadly, the Analytical Engine was never brought to full fruition. Following the completion of the Menabrea paper notes in 1843, Ada wrote to Babbage with a proposal. She offered to essentially market the Analytical Engine, ensuring it was shown to and understood by the influential people in Victorian Britain. Ada clearly understood the potential of the Analytical Engine, likely also realising that Babbage himself, for all his brilliance, would struggle to successfully capture the interest of wider society. In a move that is still puzzled over by modern biographers of the pair, Babbage flat-out rejected Ada’s help. The only record of his reaction was a note on the letter Ada had sent him stating that he had seen Ada that day and “…refused all the conditions.”

An Untimely Death and Ada's Legacy

More tragically, Ada’s personal story takes a downward turn after her and Babbage’s completion of the Menabrea paper notes. Following Babbage’s refusal to take Ada’s help in promoting the Analytical Engine, they remained friends but in lieu of working to promote the Engine’s virtues, she acquired a serious addiction to gambling on horse races. Racking up significant sums of debt, Ada was possibly using this readily available pastime to engage her analytical mind. Regardless of the reason, the money owed was not easily paid back and remained outstanding until her mother’s intervention. Ada’s circumstances continued to become graver. Plagued by acute physical pain and haemorrhaging due to what would eventually be diagnosed as uterine cancer, Ada began consuming large quantities of laudanum. This potent tincture of opium was commonly used to treat pain in the Victorian era, despite the highly addictive nature of the substance. In time, it would only barely stave off Ada’s physical pain and brought on the extreme behaviour we would now expect to see from opioid consumption. After a long and excruciating illness, she died at age 36 on the 27th of November 1852. She was the same age as her father Lord Byron when he had died. Although she must have had no tangible memories of her father, having last seen him when she was just one month old, Ada requested to be buried next to Lord Byron in his home county of Nottinghamshire. She left behind her three children, her husband, her mother, and her dear friend, Charles Babbage—who had lost one of his closest companions. Despite having died far before her time, Ada Lovelace led a remarkable life. She was known in her time for her intelligence and wit. She was friends with Charles Dickens and corresponded with the pioneering physicist and chemist, Michael Faraday. It would be nearly a century after her passing that the first modern computers would be developed, in the late 1930s to early 1940s. Ada would receive a direct nod in the 1980s when the programming language ADA was named in her honour. Those who have questioned the legitimacy of Ada’s contributions based on how skilled of a mathematician she was are missing the point—Ada’s vision for the potential of what a computer could do was brilliant, and indeed massively ahead of its time. There can be no disputing this fact, and for this, Ada Lovelace continues to be an inspiration today, well-deserving of a day in her honour.
Celebrating Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer

Lauren Mullin

Lauren Mullin, Ph.D. is a mum, scientist, and history enthusiast. Born and raised in Massachusetts, USA, she now lives in Cheshire, UK, from which she can subject her family to visits to all the amazing historical sites in the North of England. Lauren regularly posts to her blog ChemHerstory the stories of women throughout the history of science.
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