Ada, We Hardly Knew Ye.

Ada Lovelace

A happy belated Ada Lovelace Day to everyone. For those unfamiliar with the remarkable Lady Lovelace, she was one of the most intriguing women of the nineteenth century, and along with her mentor and confidant, Charles Babbage, she formed one of the most fascinating partnerships in the history of science and offered the world a chance to experience the computer revolution 100 years early.

She was born Augusta Ada Byron, on December 10, 1815, the only legitimate child of the legendary Lord Byron and Annabella Milbank. Shortly after her birth, her parent’s marriage disintegrated in a spectacular divorce that scandalized English society and came to influence much of Ada’s young life. In the aftermath, Lord Byron left England for the Continent, never to return. Ada’s mother forbade the child to ever speak of him, and had Ada tutored extensively in mathematics as a means of countering any poetical influences or her father.

By the time she entered London society at the age of seventeen, Ada had matured into a young woman possessing charm, beauty and wealth. To her mother’s dismay she was a creature of fierce intellect and consuming passions, every bit the heir to her “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” sire. While making the rounds of balls and parties along with the other young women in her social milieu, Ada happened to attend a soiree held by the famous mathematician

Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage. He offered his guests a demonstration of his newest invention, a thinking machine.

A hush fell over the room as Babbage turned the crank handle of what he called his difference engine for the crème de la crème of London intelligentsia and high society. The device’s myriad brass and steel gears gleamed in the reflected gas light, and as they turned it began to perform calculations faster and with greater accuracy than any human could. The audience was fascinated and delighted, but most concluded the wondrous machine was simply an amusing plaything with no practical applications. Not so Ada.

Almost immediately she, unlike the other party goers, grasped the revolutionary significance of such a machine and spent many hours asking Mr. Babbage about its inner workings. For his part, Babbage was flattered by the attention of such a curious and intellectually gifted young woman. Within a few short months, he was helping her obtain the finest of mathematical tutors so that she could fully appreciate the elegance of the engine’s design.

It wasn’t long, however, before Babbage was setting out upon the next step in the evolution of thinking machines. He began working on plans for a much more sophisticated device he called the analytical engine. This was much more than simply a calculator. It could process and store information, even print out the results. It was in every modern sense of the word a computer.

When Ada found out she enthusiastically joined the effort, using her wealth and social connections to become the analytical engine’s most ardent advocate and spokesperson. She continued her mathematical studies, and showed such an affinity for it that Babbage began referring to her as, “The Enchantress of Numbers.” It was also during this period that Ada accepted an offer of marriage from a handsome young member of the nobility, William King, and formally became the Countess of Lovelace.

Word of Babbage’s new machine spread widely, and he was invited to deliver a lecture about it in Italy to that nation’s top scientists, mathematicians and engineers. He readily accepted, and so impressed them that one of the engineers, L. F. Menabrea, who would later go on to become Italian Prime Minster, wrote a detailed and quite complimentary paper on Babbage and the analytical engine. Unfortunately, the paper initially had little impact in England because as was customary for scientific papers from the Continent at the time, it was published in French.

Babbage needed someone to translate the work for the English public to help him obtain the funding he so desperately needed to complete his project, but he needed someone who was familiar enough with his machine to do it real justice and fully convey some of the finer technological points. He naturally called upon his closest ally, Ada. She quickly accepted, but that was not enough. Babbage took the unprecedented step of asking her to not only translate Menabrea’s work, but to add her own notes so as to show the machine and its potential to its best advantage.

This was in 1842. Writing and offering her scientific opinions was a far cry from the duties expected of a young married woman, let alone a countess, but Ada unhesitatingly took on the challenge. Her notes were in fact so extensive by the time she was done that they exceeded the length of Menabrea’s original paper. She fully expounded upon the intricacies of the analytical engine and significance on society of its completion. She even included a method for using the engine to calculate Bernoulli numbers. Many later writers have credited this as being the first published computer program.

Some writers have tried to downplay the significance of Ada’s contributions or suggested that the work was simply supplied to her by Babbage. The best evidence against this conclusion is the writings of Babbage himself. In his autobiography, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, he wrote:

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.

Alas, despite the best efforts of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, their dream of a nineteenth century computer revolution was not to be. Ada fell victim to ovarian cancer and died at the tragically early age of 37. In her absence, Babbage, for a number of political, economic and personal reasons, was never able to get enough funding to complete a working model of his analytical engine. After years of designing and drawing up extensive plans for his device and numerous unsuccessful attempts to obtain funding, Babbage died in 1871 with his analytical engine unbuilt.

Working model of the Analytical Engine

It would have been easy to forget about the scientific efforts of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, to let their memories slip into the ignoble history of fool’s errands and unrealized schemes, but in 1991, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Babbage’s birth the London Science Museum undertook a project to actually construct the analytical engine based upon the original plans. Working meticulously from Babbage’s notes and using materials and methods that he would have had access to in the nineteenth century, they built the machine. To their credit and the delight of fans of science, it worked. The mechanical computer that Babbage and Lovelace had struggled for so many years for had actually become a reality. So today, we can celebrate the genius of these two extraordinary individuals who persevered despite political opposition, economic difficulties and societal constraints. We can take a moment every year on October 7th,Ada Lovelace Day, to thank them for their efforts and to imagine what if.


2 thoughts on “Ada, We Hardly Knew Ye.

  1. Downs

    Dear Mr. Mad4science,
    This piece on Ada Lovelace tells an interesting historical story. You have great authority on the subject. Your sentence-by-sentence writing is clear and accessible. I wonder what more can be gleaned from these stories of neutrinos and Ada Lovelace and Babbage, what the stories might tell me about discovery, our bedrock foundations of knowledge, of roles and of how science allows us to break free of them. In short, I wonder, are these subjects in the posts capable of serving as metaphors, somehow, for the human experience? And, if so, what do you think those metaphors might be?

  2. Pingback: Rebuilding The Computing Past For The Future | Bloggo Schloggo

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