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Ada Lovelace

Lived 1815 1852.

Born two centuries ago, Ada Lovelace was a pioneer of computing science. She took part in writing
the first published program and was a computing visionary, recognizing for the first time that
computers could do much more than just calculations.

Early Life and Education

Ada Lovelace was born in London, England on December 10, 1815. She was named Augusta Ada
Byron, but her surname changed after she married.
Her father was the brilliant, yet notorious poet Lord Byron (mad, bad and dangerous to know!) and
her mother was Anne Isabella Milbanke. Her father was one of the greats of poetry, but his
personality was unstable. Her mother was highly intelligent, had been well-educated by private
tutors, and was particularly enthusiastic about mathematics and the sciences.
Adas father abandoned his wife and daughter, leaving Britain forever when Ada was one month old.
He died in Greece when Ada was eight years old. Ada never knew him.
Adas mother, Lady Byron, seems to have had little or no affection for her daughter and had very
little contact with her. The young girl was brought up by her maternal grandmother and servants. Her
grandmother died when Ada was just seven years old, and Ada herself suffered long spells of poor
health in both childhood and later.
One thing her mother insisted upon was that Ada get a high quality education.

In those days, there were no places for girls in the United Kingdoms universities.
However, girls from wealthy, aristocratic families could still be educated to a high level by private
tutors. And this is how Ada was educated.
Her mother wanted Ada to concentrate particularly hard on mathematics and science. She had two
reasons for this:

these were her own favorite subjects

she was worried that insanity ran in Adas fathers family and wanted her daughter to stay
away from her fathers interests, such as poetry

Lady Byron also ensured Ada had tuition in music and French, since musical ability and the ability to
read and make conversation in French were socially desirable.
Her mother was very strict with Ada. In fact she seems to have been something of a tyrant,
demanding that the young girl work very hard and punishing her with periods of isolation if she
thought she had not worked hard enough. Lady Byrons desire was that her daughter would become
a highly disciplined, serious person the opposite of her father.

Ada Lovelace: Mathematician and Computer

It may seem odd to call someone born in 1815 a computer scientist, but that is what Ada Lovelace
Her life changed forever on June 5, 1833, when the 17 year-old girl met Charles Babbage. This was
not something many girls Adas age could ever do, but as an aristocrat she enjoyed better
opportunities than most.
Babbage was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, a position once
held by Isaac Newton and held more recently by Stephen Hawking.
Babbage learned that both Lady Byron and her daughter were knowledgeable about mathematics
and invited them to see a small-scale version of the calculating machine he was working on
called the difference engine.
Babbage had become fed up with people making mistakes in lengthy calculations, and his idea was
to build an infallible steam-driven or hand-cranked calculating machine. Ada was completely

captivated by the concept, but there was little she could do at the time to help Babbage with his
However, she sent a message to Babbage requesting copies of the machines blueprints, because
she was determined to understand how it worked.

Learning That You Can Talk to Machines

A Jacquard loom and punch cards. A first step in machine language. Image: George Williams.

Ada and Lady Byron also arranged to visit factories where they could see steam driven machines at
work and learn as much as they could about mechanical devices. These were highly unusual
activities for an aristocratic woman and her daughter!
An important part of Adas education was to see theJacquard loom in operation.
The Jacquard loom was a machine that produced textiles with patterns woven into them. Joseph
Marie Jacquard had invented it in 1801.
The Jacquard loom was controlled by punch cards, with one card equal to one row of the textile
being woven. If the card was punched, the loom thread would be raised. If the card was not
punched, the loom thread would be left alone. In other words, the punch cards issued instructions to
the machine. They were a simple language, or putting it another way,machine code.

More Math and also Marriage & Children

Ada continued her independent pursuit of mathematical knowledge. She became friends with one of
the finest female mathematicians of her time, Mary Somerville, who discussed modern mathematics
with Ada, set her higher level mathematics problems, and talked in detail about Charles Babbages
difference engine.
In 1835, at the age of 19, Ada married William King, the Earl of Lovelace, with whom she would have
three children between 1836 and 1839.
In 1841 she began working on mathematics again, and was given advanced work by Professor
Augustus De Morgan of University College London. She also continued to learn advanced
mathematics through correspondence with Mary Somerville.
All the time, she had kept Babbages difference engine in mind.

Ada Lovelaces Notes on the Analytical Engine

In 1842 Ada Lovelace became aware of a work in French called Sketch of Charles Babbages
Analytical Engine, by Luigi Federico Menabrea, an engineer.
Menabrea had listened to lectures by Babbage and written them up in French. By this time, Babbage
had moved on from the difference engine to a much higher level computer concept, the analytical
The analytical engine would be capable of much more sophisticated calculations than the original
difference engine.
Indeed, the analytical engine concept was completely groundbreaking, and a work of incredible
genius on Babbages part; it was the worlds first programmable computer. In modern terms, the
analytical engine would be described as Turing-complete. It featured an arithmetic logic portion,
control flow by loops and conditional branching, and separate memory and all of this to be built
using mechanical parts and powered by hand-cranking or steam!
Ada Lovelace got hold of Menabreas work and translated it into English.
Babbage read her translation and asked her why she had not written such a paper herself, because
she was more than capable. Perhaps she could now add her own thoughts to Menabreas work?
Ada Lovelace responded by adding notes to her translation of Menabreas work. Her notes were
three times more extensive than the original work. When her English translation was published, most
of the work published was actually her own.

She also added algebraic workings to the notes for how an analytical engine could perform
calculations. Babbage himself took on one of the trickiest calculations Bernoulli Numbers and
sent it to Ada to include in her work, but she detected and corrected what Babbage himself
described as a grave error in his working. In her notes, she included the worlds first published
computer program, or algorithm this was the Bernoulli number algorithm and hence she is often
cited as the worlds first computer programmer. It would be fair to say, though, that Babbage
contributed much of this section of her notes precisely how much is the subject of academic
In her notes Ada Lovelace broke new ground in computing, when she realized something that
nobody else had. She realized that an analytical engine could go beyond numbers. This was the first
ever conception of a modern computer not just a calculator but a machine that could contribute
to other areas of human endeavor, for example to compose music.
Ada Lovelace had grasped that anything that could be converted into numbers, such as music, or
the alphabet (language) or images, could then be manipulated by computer algorithms. An analytical
engine had the potential to revolutionize the way the whole world worked, not just the world of
She wrote, for example:

Adas notes indicate that her mental processes had evolved further than her mothers strictly
disciplined approach. She had become comfortable with a more visionary approach. Yes, its true
that her notes are full of mathematics, but she had freed her mind sufficiently to look beyond the
equations and algorithms to other possibilities. Babbage himself described her as an enchantress of
However, this was not destined to be the brilliant dawn of a new science.

Ada Lovelace became increasingly unwell after she wrote her notes and died young. Charles
Babbage ran into financial problems, which meant that he never built a working computer.
An important question to ask at this stage is: could one of Babbages mechanical computers ever
have worked in practice?

The working difference engine at the Science Museum in London. Image: Geni.

Fortunately, we know the answer to this.

In 1991, Doron Swade, Curator of Computing at Londons Science Museum, had a difference engine
built using Babbages design.
It weighed 5 tons and worked perfectly. One or two small design errors had to be corrected, although
it is likely that these were deliberate errors aimed at preventing a competitor or foreign government
building an engine easily if they could steal the plans.

Enter Alan Turing

About 90 years after Ada Lovelace wrote her notes, Alan Turing entered the field. Turing, of course,
was a genius in his own right.
As a young man he had read Ada Lovelaces notes, among many other papers he read. We know he
disagreed with one of her conclusions that artificial intelligence is not possible. She believed that
computers could only ever follow instructions, and could never think independently. Turing
demonstrated that she was wrong.
Unfortunately, with no means of asking him the question, we cannot say to what extent Ada
Lovelaces work actually influenced his concept ofThe Universal Turing Machine, the machine
concept that began the modern age of computing.
Certainly the mathematics involved in the development of the Universal Turing Machine is beyond
anything done in Babbage and Lovelaces time. On the other hand, the concept of a machine that
could be more than a calculator, to compose music, for example, began with Lovelaces notes.

A Colossus computer at Bletchley Park being used to decode German messages sent during World War 2.

The codebreakers at Bletchley Park in the United Kingdom, where Turing worked during World War
2, built and used the Colossus series of computers the worlds first electronic computers. In doing
so, they actually put Lovelaces visionary concept of a computer to work.
Coded text from German messages was converted to numbers which could then undergo statistical
analysis by the computer before being converted back into text that could be read and understood
by humans.

The Mother of Modern Computing?

So, is it correct to describe Ada Lovelace as the mother of our modern concept of computing?
If were using language like mothers and fathers, I think were on pretty safe ground to say that Ada
Lovelace is the mother of modern computing, and Charles Babbage is the father.
What we cant say for certain is:
Did Ada and Charless child die in infancy, so that Turings computing breakthroughs represented an
entirely new child?
Did Ada and Charless child live on in some kind of suspended animation until it was rediscovered,
adopted and reared into adulthood by Alan Turing.
We shall probably never know the answer.
What we do know is that the Pentagon and US militarys programmers named their own computing
language Ada.

The End
Ada Lovelace died, probably of uterine cancer, at the age of 36 on November 27, 1852. Her health
had deteriorated after she completed her notes on the analytical engine, and she had suffered a

variety of illnesses. She had been in pain for several years, and was given opiates by her physicians
to help her cope with it. She also drank considerable amounts of alcohol, affecting her moods in her
later years.
In the end, she forgave her father for abandoning her as a baby. She came to believe that her
mother had deliberately tried to turn her against her father. Ada requested that she be buried beside
Lord Byron at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Hucknall, Nottingham. Her grave can be seen
there today.
Well end with the words penned by Lord Byron at the beginning of one of his greatest works Childe
Harolds Pilgrimage soon after he left his wife and baby daughter forever: