Ada Lovelace “had a unique and farsighted insight into the potential of computers,” says James Essinger. (Getty Images)
Despite being one of the many figures in the history of science whose work was only properly appreciated posthumously, today Ada Lovelace (1815–52) is now regarded as one of the most important figures in the early history of the computer. Lovelace is particularly intriguing as, not only was she a woman working during a period when men dominated the fields of science and mathematics, but she also had a unique and farsighted insight into the potential of computers.
An unconventional upbringing
Nowadays usually known simply as ‘Ada Lovelace’, Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace, was born Ada Byron on 10 December 1815. She was the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron and his wife Anne Isabella Milbanke, usually known as Annabella. However, Byron only ever knew his daughter as a baby. Byron and Annabella were married on 2 January 1815 and lived together for almost a year. Yet by early 1816 Annabella had grown sick of her husband’s infidelities and the appalling financial pressures under which the couple had spent all their married life. Early in the morning of Monday 15 January, she left Byron, taking Ada with her. Without waking her husband, she ran away from their London home to go to her parents. Byron never saw his wife or daughter again.
From her childhood, Ada had a fascination with mathematics. This fascination was encouraged by her mother, who was terrified that Ada might grow up as feckless and purposeless as Byron had been, or be destroyed by an over-active imagination. The young Ada became close to obsessed not only by mathematics but also by science. While she was living in a large house near Canterbury in 1828, she conceived the idea of building a steam-powered flying machine and spent many hours trying to work out how it might operate.
An 1836 portrait of Ada Lovelace, painted by Margaret Sarah Carpenter. (Getty Images)
Despite Ada’s yearning for a life of the mind, she was essentially directed by her mother to follow a conventional upper middle class upbringing. By this point Lady Byron was one of the wealthiest women in Britain, and had the influence and power to ensure Ada did exactly as she pleased. In 1835, with her mother’s approval, Ada married a pleasant but not especially intellectually gifted young aristocrat, Lord William King, who in due course inherited the title of Earl of Lovelace. William was devoted to Ada and admired her greatly. He once reportedly remarked to her, “what a general you would make”.
A pioneering friendship
Yet by the time Ada had married the man approved of by her mother, she had also met another man who made a huge impression on her, on both a personal and intellectual level.
This was Charles Babbage – a man 24 years Ada’s elder – who she met on the evening of 5 June 1833, at a party in London. Ada was clearly fascinated by Babbage and his plans to build a cogwheel calculating machine, which he called the Difference Engine. Babbage, in turn, was surely flattered by the attention from a famous young lady; Ada’s fame stemmed from her father, and she was something of a celebrity in her day. Babbage invited Lady Byron and Ada to visit his home on Dorset Street, near Manchester Square in London, to see a completed model he had made of his Difference Engine. This was a working model one-seventh of the full-size machine, the whole of which Babbage never managed to complete. Ada was deeply impressed by the model. She and Babbage became firm friends, though due to the disparity in their ages and the fact that Ada was only 17 when they met, in the early days of their friendship, they usually met only when Lady Byron was present.
Charles Babbage, photographed in around 1860. (Getty Images)
In 1834, Babbage began working on an even more ambitious machine than the Difference Engine, which he called the Analytical Engine. This was essentially a general-purpose programmable digital computer that used cogwheels operating in base 10 (our everyday mathematical numbering system that uses decimal numbers), rather than electronic components operating in binary. Otherwise, it featured most of the logical components of a modern electronic computer. These included memory, storage and programming, for which Babbage borrowed the idea of using punched cards from the programmable Jacquard Loom (a programmable loom first demonstrated in 1801, which could weave any pattern). The Analytical Engine even featured security measures to warn the machine’s operator when they made a mistake.
Lovelace was even more fascinated by the Analytical Engine than by the Difference Engine. Neither machine was ever completed. Yet while Babbage’s plans for the Analytical Engine never got beyond the design stage, they do include 2,200 notations and about 300 design drawings. (There is an ongoing modern initiative to build an Analytical Engine, although no machine is likely to be built for about a decade as the project is only being funded slowly and requires extensive work.)
For a long time, many modern commentators – typically male computer scientists – were scathing about Lovelace’s contribution to Babbage’s work, regarding her at worse a nuisance, or at best merely someone who proved helpful in publicising his efforts. Babbage himself called Lovelace his ‘interpretess’ – clearly that was the extent to which he regarded her contribution.
However, more recent modern research has made it clear that Lovelace’s contribution to the thinking at the heart of the prehistory of the computer was enormous. In 1843 she translated a paper on the Analytical Engine from French, written by an Italian scientist and future prime minister of Italy, Luigi Federico Menabrea. Lovelace went far beyond merely translating this paper – she wrote around 20,000 words of her own Notes (the word is usually capitalised in Lovelace’s studies) that discussed the Analytical Engine’s potential. Her translation and Notes were subsequently published under her initials, AAL.
While it is clear that Babbage helped Lovelace with some of the technical material in her Notes, theories that Babbage wrote most of the Notes himself have now been discredited. This is partly because linguistic analysis shows that the voice the Notes were written in was very much Ada’s, but also because Ada clearly had insights into the Analytical Engine that Babbage seemingly lacked. Babbage saw the Analytical Engine as a brilliant machine for doing mathematics, which it certainly was. However, there is no clear evidence that he ever saw it as anything more.
Lovelace’s Notes, on the other hand, reveal that she regarded the machine as something that could not only enact calculations, but could also carry out all kinds of processes that could govern all kinds of applications. She famously remarked that the “Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard Loom weaves flowers and leaves”. This brilliant insight into what the Jacquard Loom could do is an important part of Lovelace’s contribution towards the early history of the computer. She called her own particular brand of thinking about science “poetical science”, and also recognised that the Analytical Engine could even compose music if properly set up to do so. As she wrote:
“Supposing that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition could be expressed and adapted within the Analytical Engine, it might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”
A model of Babbage’s Difference Engine no. 2. Babbage never managed to complete a Difference Engine during his lifetime. (Getty Images)
Ada Lovelace’s legacy
On 27 November 1852, Ada died from cancer, most likely of the uterus. She was only 36 at the time, the same age at which her father had died. She now lies next to him in the sealed Byron family tomb in St Mary Magdalene Church, Hucknall, in Nottinghamshire.
Lovelace’s reputation today as a pioneer in the thinking of the early history of the computer is unquestionably deserved. Some have gone so far as to claim that Lovelace was the world’s first computer programmer, though as Charles Babbage biographer and computer science historian Doron Swade MBE points out, Babbage’s programs predate Lovelace’s by seven years.
Lovelace became fascinated by the algorithms that the Analytical Engine might calculate, and one of the great tragedies in the history of computing is that she was not involved in Babbage’s work more. In August 1843, Ada wrote a long letter to Babbage suggesting that he let her help manage all the aspects of the Analytical Engine build project that required the influencing of important people. But he rejected her offer. It is not clear why; the best guess is that while he greatly approved of her work in publicising his engines, and the Analytical Engine in particular, he felt uncomfortable about letting Ada be involved in the project itself. What is fascinating is that even after Babbage’s curt rejection of Ada’s offer of help, she and Babbage remained lifelong friends.
While Babbage never completed a Difference Engine or an Analytical Engine himself, in 1991 a team at the London Science Museum – working under Doron Swade’s leadership – completed the fully working full-size calculation element of the Difference Engine. In 2002, they successfully completed a full-scale working Difference Engine. The project took 17 years to complete and is a most impressive sight: a magnificent piece of pioneering 19th-century engineering realised in the 20th century.
Today, Ada is quite rightly seen as an icon of feminist scientific achievement, a heroine of the mind, and one of the earliest visionaries in the early history of the computer.
James Essinger is the author of Ada’s Algorithm, a biography of Ada Lovelace, and of the forthcoming biography of Charles Babbage, Machines of the Mind. (James Essinger warmly acknowledges the kind assistance given him with this article by Doron Swade MBE)