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.

Book Preview: Joseph Priestley

Thought folks might like to see a sneak peak of the upcoming book They Called Me Mad: Genius, Madness and the Scientists Who Pushed the Outer Limits of Knowledge
 Here’s an excerpt about one of the great chemists of all time, Joseph Preistley:

Prior to becoming a teacher, Priestley had little in the way of formal science education, but he viewed science as an important part of his students’ education. As he wrote in one of his later works:

“I am sorry to have occasion to observe, that natural science is very little, if at all, the object of education in this country, in which many individuals have distinguished themselves so much by their application to it. And I would observe that, if we wish to lay a good foundation for philosophical taste, and philosophical pursuits, persons should be accustomed to the sight of experiments, and processes, in early life. They should more especially be early initiated in the theory and practice of investigation, by which many of the old discoveries may be made to be really their own…” (Priestley, Expriments and Observation of Different Kinds of Air)

With this in mind, he began educating himself in the topic to better instruct his young charges. He even purchased a few scientific instruments for their benefit, including an air pump, a well-calibrated scale and a machine for generating static electricity.

The scientists of the time were a far cry from the professional researchers of today. In fact, the word “scientist” wouldn’t come into popular English usage for another hundred years. Instead, scientific experiments in the 1700’s and well into the 1800’s were carried out largely by amateurs, dilatants and dabblers who had the time and inclination to explore the scientific mysteries of the day. Once he began conducting and demonstrating experiments for his students, Priestley quickly became hooked, and was soon on his way toward becoming one of the dabblers.

Like many of his peers, Priestley became fascinated with the newly fashionable phenomenon of electricity. It was quite in vogue at the time, due in no small part to the efforts of an American experimenter named Benjamin Franklin. He and his fellow electricians, as they were called, were busy capturing the public’s imagination with flamboyant demonstrations of electrical wonders. What’s more, they were inventing practical applications for their electrical knowledge, including Franklin’s lightning rod and E.F. von Kleist’s invention of an early capacitor known as a Leyden jar.

Priestly was struck by the fact that no one had documented the history of this rapidly expanding field. He was still enjoying the success of his earlier book, and thought he might be just the man to tackle the job. With that goal, he set off for London to meet the electricians for himself, and propose to them that he chronicle their discoveries. To smooth the way, he brought with him a letter of introduction from the rector of the Warrington Academy, John Seddon. It was addressed to one of England’s leading electricians, John Canton, a member of the Royal Society. In his letter, Seddon wrote, “You will find [Priestley] a benevolent, sensible man, with a considerable share of Learning.” At the end, there was a short postscript: “If Dr. Franklin be in Town, I believe Dr. Priestley would be glad to be made known to him.” (Johnson)

As it happened, Franklin was in town. He was serving as the deputy postmaster general for North America. During the extended stays in London this required, Franklin would often frequent one of the local coffee houses near St Paul’s Cathedral, where he could strike up conversations with fellow freethinkers. Eventually Franklin and his friends formed an informal group they called the Club of Honest Whigs. They would meet on alternate Thursdays and discuss the burning issues of the day over coffee and porter. Frequently these discussions would involve scientific questions, and new theories and speculations about electricity were a frequent topic.

It was just such a meeting that John Canton attended in 1765, and invited the young Dr. Priestley to tag along. Soon the humble pastor was sitting across the table from his heroes, including the world famous Dr. Franklin himself. Franklin and the others welcomed their new admirer warmly as one of their own, and over the course of the afternoon, Priestley laid out his book proposal. Not only did they give the idea a warm reception but promised to help by supplying research materials and offering to read the manuscript. They also suggested experiments that he could conduct himself to better understand the subject. With their encouragement, Priestley leapt fully into the world of science.

Within a few days, Priestley was accompanying Franklin and Canton as they visited the Royal Society. Imagine what it must have been like for Priestley to entered those hallowed halls of science where Newton himself had once presided, and in such august company. In less than a week he had gone from a young dabbler to an honored guest of the great men of science. He would soon be sitting amongst them as a scientific peer.

When his time in London was done, he rushed back to Warrington and began assembling a sort of make shift laboratory. Using his limited funds to purchase the tools and materials he needed, He was soon throwing himself into scientific experimentation with an almost manic intensity. Unfortunately, there is no record of his wife’s reaction to all this, but she must have been less than pleased when, in order to conduct some of his messier experiments, he commandeered their kitchen sink.

Mad Scientist Hall of Fame: Luigi Galvani

Galvani LabDelicately, the practiced hand of the anatomist pealed back the skin of the once living frog to reveal the intricate network of muscles and nerves within.  Meanwhile, electrical sparks flashed and crackled as his assistant dutifully turned the crank of the static electricity generator and charged the primitive capacitor known as a Leyden jar.  Each worked independently, ignorant of the discovery to come. 


No one is quite sure why he reached for one of the dissecting knives from the table where his master worked, but as the assistant did so, an electric spark jumped from the tip of the blade to the exposed leg of the frog.  As electricity surged along the sciatic nerve of the amphibian, the leg convulsed violently as if alive.  Both men were stunned.  They stooped to examine the leg more closely.  The doctor prodded the leg with the tip of his own scalpel to assure himself that the frog was indeed dead.  Since the assistant no longer cranked the generator, the leg remained still.  Had this happened in someone else’s laboratory, it might have been dismissed as a freak occurrence, but this was the laboratory of the great Italian anatomist, Luigi Galvani, and he was intrigued.

Luigi Galvani
Luigi Galvani


In 1780, Galvani was a well respected physician and lecturer at the famed University of Bologna.  He had produced a number of significant writings on anatomy, such as his well regarded treatise on the kidneys of birds.  However, like many scientists at the time, he had become fascinated with electricity.  Benjamin Franklin’s groundbreaking work on lightning in the 1750’s had made the study of electricity all the rage among researchers in both the New and Old World.  Galvani was one of many who eagerly sought the primitive electrical apparatus of the day to explore this new phenomenon.


The accident with the frog caused Galvani wonder.  Could electricity somehow animate the unliving tissue of the frog?  Could there be some connection between sparks of electricity and the spark of life itself?  He immediately began to investigate the possibility.  Being a trained scientist and meticulous experimenter, he carefully set up a series of experiments to replicate the initial accident.  In his own words, “For it is easy in experimentation to be deceived, and to think one has seen and discovered what we desire to see and discover.”


Galvani tried to see if the material with which he touched the frog’s leg had an effect.  An iron rod duplicated the original results, but a glass rod did not.  He tried attaching the leg to a long wire while he cranked the generator.  When he touched the wire, the leg again convulsed.  Again and again he repeated his experiments, changing one variable and then another.  In one of his more ghoulish attempts, he attached the spinal cords and legs of several dissected frogs to brass hooks.  The hooks were then hung from an iron railing surrounding Galvani’s garden.  Under the proper atmospheric conditions, they would twitch and contract.  One can only imagine what it must have been like to sit in the garden and watch a line full of disembodied frog legs dance to the accompaniment of thunder and lightning.


Galvani used these experiments and subsequent ones over the course of ten years to develop his theory of animal electricity, what today we would call bioelectricity.  In 1791, he published his results in De Viribus Electricitatis in Motu Musculari Commentarius, in English: On the Effects of Electricity on the Motion of Muscles.  It was met with widespread acclaim at the time. 


Most of us associate the image of the mad scientist using the wondrous powers of electricity to revive the flesh of the dead with the work of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly, but it should be remembered that Luigi Galvani published his work six years before she was born and almost thirtig10_lightning_03_02y years before the first publication of Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to credit him with burning this iconic image into the popular psyche.  Galvani, the real life scientist, therefore is better deserving of the title Modern Prometheus.