My history hero: Konnie Huq chooses Ada Lovelace (1815–52)

Television presenter and author Konnie Huq chooses mathematician and writer Ada Lovelace as her history hero

A contemporary portrait of scientist Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace: in profile

Ada Lovelace was a mathematician and writer. The only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, she is best known for her work helping to develop Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, a calculation machine which is essentially an early incarnation of a computer. The mother-of-three died of uterine cancer in London aged 36, and at her request was buried next to her father in Nottinghamshire.

Advertisement

When did you first hear about Lovelace?

I think I first heard about her in my teens, and made a film about her for Blue Peter in my twenties when I was fresh out of university. I’ve always felt an affinity with her, as she had both a creative and a scientific side. I remember being surprised so few people knew about this remarkable individual.

What kind of woman was she?

She was the daughter of Lord Byron, so naturally had a creative side, and just from reading her letters you can seen that she had a flair for words which would have been more apparent if she had become a writer. But her mother, Lady Byron, was a mathematician, and after she and her husband broke up, she – unusually for the time, and partly as an act of revenge on her philandering partner – pushed Ada into an education in science and maths: a very forward-thinking act.

“If Charles Babbage is considered the father of the computer, Ada Lovelace has just as much right to be considered its mother”

What made Lovelace a hero?

Firstly, her work in helping to develop Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. He’s been described as the ‘father of the computer’, but Ada took his notes and expanded on them, so played a much bigger part in the story than people realise. She also embodies, for me, the fact that science and the arts don’t need to be mutually exclusive. Her father was a poet and her mother a mathematician, and you can see both influences in her work. Lastly, she was a trailblazer generally for women in the sciences.

What was Lovelace’s finest hour?

Undoubtedly her role in developing the Analytical Engine. She understood the machine’s real significance, and saw that it could be more than a mere number-cruncher. Most uses that we put computers to today, and they are so varied, would not have been possible if Ada had not recognised the potential of Babbage’s computer beyond a simple calculating machine all those years ago. So if he is considered the father of the computer, she has just as much right to be considered its mother.

Is there anything that you don’t admire about her?

She got into gambling and had a bad time of it, unfortunately.

Do you have any inventions up your sleeve?

I have loads of great ideas, though I’ve yet to bring them to fruition. But if they ever want to do a Celebrity Dragons’ Den, I’m there!

If you could meet Lovelace, what would you ask her?

I’d like to know whether she was annoyed by the fact that, even today, Charles Babbage is credited with inventing the Analytical Engine, while she remains less well known.

Konnie Huq was talking to York Membery.Huq is best known for presenting Blue Peter from 1997–2008, and is an ambassador for the British Red Cross. Her children’s novel Cookie and the Most Annoying Boy in the World was published by Piccadilly Press in August 2019

LISTEN AGAIN: Konnie Huq championed Ada Lovelace on Radio 4’s Great Lives

Advertisement

This article was first published in the December 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine