“That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal; as time will show”
In 1842, a brilliant mathematician named Ada Lovelace wrote and published the first ever computer program. Based on a hypothetical future, Lovelace acknowledged the potential for machines to achieve far more than pure calculation, and with a strong personality and unconventional upbringing made history while still in her twenties.
But who exactly was this intelligent and intriguing figure?
1. She was the daughter of Romantic poet Lord Byron
Ada Lovelace was born on 10 December 1815 in London, as Augusta Ada Byron, and was the only legitimate child of Lord George Gordon Byron and his wife Lady Annabella Byron.
Today considered one of Britain’s greatest Romantic poets, Lord Byron was infamous for his many affairs and dark moods. Though an unconventional match for the deeply religious and morally strict Annabella, in January 1815 they were married, with the young woman believing it her religious duty to guide the troubled poet to virtue.
Annabella herself was a gifted thinker and had received an unconventional Cambridge University education in her home whilst growing up, particularly delighting in mathematics. Byron would later nickname her his ‘Princess of Parallelograms’.
2. Her birth was shrouded in controversy
Byron’s infidelity soon drove the relationship to misery however, with Annabella believing him ‘morally fractured’ and verging on insanity. The marriage was short-lived, lasting only a year before she demanded they separate when Ada was just weeks old.
At the time, rumours were swirling surrounding Lord Byron’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister, forcing him to leave England for Greece. He would never return, and upon leaving he lamented of Ada,
“Is thy face like thy mother’s my fair child! ADA! sole daughter of my house and heart?”
This controversy placed Ada at the centre of court gossip from the outset of her life, and Lady Byron retained an unhealthy obsession with her former husband, becoming hell-bent on ensuring her daughter never inherited his wantonness.
3. Her mother was terrified she would turn out like her father
As a young girl, Ada was encouraged by her mother to pursue mathematics and science rather than the arts as her father had – fearing that it may lead her down a similar path of debauchery and madness.
She had her watched by close friends for any sign of moral deviation, and Lovelace termed these informants the ‘Furies’, later stating they exaggerated and falsified stories about her behaviour.
Ada never had a relationship with her father, and he died when she was 8 years old after contracting an illness fighting in the Greek War of Independence. Despite Annabella’s best efforts however – including refusing to show Ada a portrait of her father until her 20th birthday – she would come to hold a deep reverence for Byron and inherit many of his traits.
4. She excelled in science and mathematics from an early age
Though hampered by ill-health throughout her childhood, Ada excelled in her education – an education that thanks to her mother’s suspicion of the arts and love for mathematics, was rather unconventional for women at the time.
She was taught by social reformer William Frend, physician William King, and became very close with her tutor Mary Somerville. Somerville was a Scottish astronomer and mathematician, who was one of the first woman invited to join the Royal Astronomers Society.
A testament to her scientific interest from an early age, at 12 years old Ada fixed herself on learning a rather peculiar talent – how to fly. Methodically and enthusiastically studying the anatomy of birds, she wrote a book on her findings titled Flyology!
5. She was a hit amongst polite society
Though an astute scholar like her mother, Ada also dazzled in the realms of social society. At 17 she was introduced at court, becoming a ‘popular belle of the season’ on account of her ‘brilliant mind’.
In 1835, aged 19 she married William, 8th Baron King, becoming Lady King. He was later made Earl of Lovelace, affording Ada the name she is now commonly known by. The pair shared a love of horses and had three children, each named as a nod to Ada’s parentage – Byron, Annabella, and Ralph Gordon. She and William enjoyed a pleasant life in society, mixing with the brightest minds of the day from Charles Dickens to Michael Faraday.
6. The ‘father of the computer’ was her mentor
In 1833, Lovelace was introduced to Charles Babbage, a mathematician and inventor who soon became a mentor to the young girl. Babbage arranged her tuition in advanced mathematics by University of London professor Augustus de Morgan, and first introduced her to his various mathematical inventions.
These included the difference engine, which captivated Lovelace’s imagination when she was invited to view it under construction. The machine could automatically perform calculations, and was followed by plans for the more complex Analytical Engine. Both of these inventions have often earned Babbage the title as the ‘father of the computer’.
7. She wrote the first published computer program
In 1842, Ada was commissioned to translate a French transcript of one of Babbage’s lectures into English. Adding her own section simply titled ‘Notes’, Ada went on to write a detailed collection of her own ideas on Babbage’s computing machines that ended up being more extensive than the transcript itself!
Within these pages of notes, Lovelace made history. In note G, she wrote an algorithm for the Analytical Engine to compute Bernoulli numbers, the first published algorithm ever specifically tailored for implementation on a computer, or in simple terms – the first computer program.
Ironically, Lovelace’s ideas were too pioneering for their own good. Her program never had the opportunity to be tested, as Babbage’s Analytical Engine was never completed!
8. She fused the arts and science together in ‘poetical science’
Despite her mother’s best efforts to eradicate the arts from Lovelace’s life, she never fully relinquished the literary finesse she inherited from her father. Dubbing her approach ‘poetical science’, she placed great emphasis on using creativity and imagination to explore her work:
“Imagination is the Discovering Faculty, pre-eminently. It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science”
She found beauty in science and often intertwined it with the natural world, once writing:
“We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves”
9. Her life was not without controversy
Not without some of her father’s controversial tendencies, in the 1840s Ada was reportedly involved with a selection of morally dubious activities. Chief of these was a nasty gambling habit, through which she racked up huge debts. At one point, she even attempted to create a mathematical model for successful large bets, which failed catastrophically and left her owing thousands of pounds to the syndicate.
She is also said to have had a relaxed approach to extra-marital relations, with rumours of affairs swirling throughout society. Though the reality of this is unknown, an anecdote states that as Ada lay on her deathbed she confessed something to her husband. What she said remains a mystery, yet it was shocking enough to force William to abandon her bedside for good.
10. She died tragically young
In the 1850s, Ada fell ill with uterine cancer, likely exacerbated by the extensive blood-letting of her physicians. In the final months of her life, her mother Annabella took complete control of who she had access to, excluding many of her friends and close confidants in the process. She also influenced Ada to undertake a religious transformation, repenting her previous conduct.
Three months later on 27 November 1852, Ada died aged 36 – the same age her father had been at his death. She was buried beside him in St Mary Magdalene Church in Huckall, Nottinghamshire, where a simple inscription pays tribute to the incredible scientist, mathematician, and pioneering force she was.