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Ada Lovelace was a mathematician and writer from England who is commonly known as the first computer programmer. Ada worked with Charles Babbage on his Analytical Engine, a proposed mechanical, general-purpose computer and the beginnings of computer programming. Her notes included the first of what is now known as an algorithm. She is the only legitimate child of the Romantic poet, Lord Byron.

Young Life and Education

Ada Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron King on December 10, 1815, the only legitimate child produced by the famous poet George Lord Byron and wife, Lady Wentworth, Anne Isabella Milbanke, known as Annabella. Lord Byron named her Augusta after his half-sister and Ada, himself. On January 16, 1816, Annabella relocated to Kirkby Mallory, England, and her parent’s house at the request of Lord Byron. He made no claim to his parental rights over Ada, but asked that he be updated of his child’s welfare.[1]

Lovelace did not even see a portrait of her father until 20 years old. Annabella left Ada in the care of her own mother, Lady Judith Milbanke, and feigned a relationship with the young girl, even though in one letter to her mother Annabella referred to Ada as “it.” Annabella’s friends kept a close eye on Ada growing up and watched for signs of moral deviation. Ada referred to them as the “Furies.”[2]

Annabella felt bitter towards her husband for the rest of her life and encouraged Ada to pursue logic and mathematics. She felt her husband suffered a type of insanity brought on by poetry and literature.[3] Ada, herself, suffered headaches that obscured her vision beginning at eight and became paralyzed after contracting measles in June 1829. They forced her on bed rest for a year, where she continued her technological and mathematical skills. [4] She did experiments herself with flying by attempting to construct a pair of wings that integrated steam with the idea of flying.[5]

Relationships and Family

The family presented Ada at Court at age 17 and she regularly attended by 1834, becoming known for having a “brilliant mind” and a mouth like her father’s. On July 8, 1835, she married 8th Baron William King, and moved to his large estate in Surrey, Ockham Park, as well as another estate and a London home. The couple bore three children named Byron (1836), Anne Isabella (or Annabella, 1837), and Ralph Gordon (1839). She suffered a long illness after having Annabella. In 1838, William was made the Earl of Lovelace and she became the Countess of Lovelace. [6]

The First Computer Program

Despite her illnesses, she continued studying science and mathematics with people like William Frend, Mary Somerville, and Augustus De Morgan. She met Charles Babbage through Somerville in June 1833, and he invited her to view his Difference Engine prototype. He found her analytical skills and intellect impressive.[7]

The University of Turin invited Babbage to give a seminar in 1840 on his Analytical Engine. The future Prime Minister of Italy, Luigi Menabrea, then a young Italian mathematician and engineer, transcribed Babbage’s lecture in French. The Bibliothèque universelle de Genève published his transcript in October 1842. Charles Wheatstone, a friend of Babbage, asked Lady Ada Lovelace to translate it into English.[8]

Not only did Ada Lovelace’s algorithm win her the title of the first proponent of computer programming, but her ability to see the massive calculating potential for machine that was so ahead of her time.

Between 1842-43, she translated the article on Babbage’s newest machine, the Analytical Engine, written by Menabrea. She added to the article her own appended set of notes, three times longer than the article itself, explaining the machine’s function and how it differed from the initial Difference Engine. Modern scientists welcomed her work and even Michael Faraday vocally supported her ideas and writing. These notes contain the information that caused the scientific world to regard Ada Lovelace as the first computer programmer.[9]

Lovelace labeled her additions alphabetically A to G. In the last, she writes about an algorithm for the computation of Bernoulli numbers by the Analytical Engine. This section is considered the first algorithm published for the specific goal of implementing it within a computer. [10]

Lovelace more in the Analytical Engine than in prior calculating machines. She the potential for a computer to solve problems of even the most difficult complexity.[11] In her own writings she describes the possibility that “the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”[12]

Death and Legacy

Ada Lovelace developed uterine cancer and it slowly killed her. During her last several months, Ada’s mother completely controlled her life. Annabella did not allow Lovelace to see her friends or confidants and forced a religious transformation on her. Annabella persuaded her to repent her prior conduct and to make Annabella the executor of her estate.

On August 30, Lovelace confessed something to her husband, which caused him to leave her bedside and not return. Lady Ada Lovelace died at the young age of 36, the exact same age as Lord Byron, on November 27, 1852, from her uterine cancer.[13] As per her request, she is buried next to her father in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, England, in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene.

The U.S. Defense Department named the ADA computer language after her and Microsoft included her on their hologram product authenticity stickers.[14] Tom Stoppard’s play “Arcadia,”written in 1993, feature the young genius Thomasina Coverly as its protagonist. The character is based on Ada Lovelace and the play involves Lord Byron while its protagonist begins to understand chaos theory and proposes the second law of thermodynamics prior to either of these theories being recognized officially.[15]

References

Bibliography

Simonite, T. (2009, March 24). Celebrating Ada Lovelace: The “World’s First Programmer.” The New Scientist.[4]

Stein, D. (1985). Ada, A Life and a Legacy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Toole, B. A. (1998). Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers: Prophet of the Computer Age, a Pathway to the 21st Century. West Lafayette, IN, United States: Strawberry Press CA.


Woolley, B. (1999). The Bride of Science: Romance, Reason and Byron’s Daughter. Basingstoke: Macmillan.


Footnotes

  1. Stein, 1985
  2. Woolley, 1999
  3. Toole, 1998
  4. Stein, 1985
  5. Toole, 1998
  6. Woolley, 1999
  7. Toole, 1998
  8. Simonite, 2009
  9. Woolley, 1999
  10. Simonite, 2009
  11. Toole, 1998
  12. Menabrea, L. F., & Lovelace, A. (1842). Sketch of the Analytical Engine. Bibliothèque Universelle de Genève.[1]
  13. Woolley, 1999
  14. Find A Grave. (2002, January 31). Augusta Ada Byron King (1815 - 1852). Find A Grave Memorial.[2]
  15. Leithauser, B. (2013, August 8). Tom Stoppard’s, “Arcadia,” At Twenty. The New Yorker.[3]

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