USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog

Ada Byron (later Countes of Lovelace) — British mathematician

The daughter of poet Lord Byron, her key collaborations in the 1880′s with British inventor Charles Babbage led to the earliest computer; she is considered the first computer programmer.

Born Augusta Ada Byron in London in 1815,  Ada Byron (who would also later be known as the Countess of Lovelace) was the daughter of a brief marriage between the famous Romantic Age poet Lord Byron and Anne Isabelle Milbanke. Ada’s mother (known as Lady Byron) separated from Lord Byron just a month after Ada was born. Four months later, her poet father left England.  Ada actually never met Lord Byron (who died in Greece in 1823); she was raised by her mother.  Wishing Ada to be totally unlike her poetic, eccentric father, Lady Byron (despite realizing that females were not encouraged to pursue intellectual pursuits during that day) saw to it that Ada received the best tutoring in mathematics — a discipline that Lady Byron thought would counter “dangerous” poetic tendencies. This approach seemed effective: As early as 1828,  Ada, using mathematical principles, produced the design for a flying machine.  In fact, as she would soon discover, It was mathematics that gave her life wings.

However, Ada (who also enjoyed music, art and languages) was often ill, dating from her early childhood, but this did not stop her keen pursuit of mathematics and science.  A turning point in her life occurred in 1833 when at the age of 17, she met Cambridge mathematics professor Charles Babbage.  Soon after, their lifelong friendship and collaboration began. Babbage was then perfecting his invention of the “Difference Engine”, an elaborate calculating machine that operated by the method of finite differences.  This fascinated Ada and she and Baggage  began a voluminous correspondence on the topics of mathematics, logic, and  other topics.

Why She’s Important: It was Ada’s collaboration with Babbage on his later calculating machine called the “Analytical Engine” for which she would become famous. In 1834, while Babbage was still working on his Difference Engine machine, he began making plans for the Analytical Engine — a machine capable of performing simple mathematical calculations and  that could be programmed with punchcards.  His financial backers refused to support this second machine with the first  still unfinished, but Babbage later found support for his new project in 1842 with Italian mathematician Louis Menebrea, who published a memoir in French on the subject of the Analytical Engine. Babbage enlisted Ada (who was fluent in French) as translator for the memoir, and during a nine-month period from 1842-43, she worked feverishly on the article and on a set of her own notations on this invention that she attached to her translations.  Because of her understanding of mathematical principles and her insight into what Babbage was trying to accomplish through his machine, as well as its future potential, she was able to articulate the promise of Babbage’s invention better than he could. (This was critical to Babbage in gaining scientific and public support for his invention.)  She rightly saw the machine as what we would today call a general-purpose computer.

Other Achievements: Through her assistance, Babbage’s Analytical Engine machine is considered the earliest precursors of the modern computer.  In addition to her aforementioned contributions to the project, Ada also conceptualized the machine’s method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers (a special sequence of rational numbers) which is considered the world’s first computer program. As a result, she has been called the first computer programmer.  The written accounts of her works on the Analytical Engine were lost for nearly a century, but when they were recovered and reviewed and reviewed, the U.S. Defense Department in 1981 honored her by naming its new standardized international computer language “Ada.”  In addition, her image can also be seen on the Microsoft product authenticity hologram stickers, and the British Computer Society annually awards a medal in her name.

In Her Own Words:  Commenting on the potential she foresaw for the Analytical Engine, Ada is quoted as saying:  “The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves…The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform.”  Ada would go on to marry William King and when he inherited a noble title in 1838, they became the Earl and Countess of Lovelace. They had three children. Ada died of uterine cancer in 1852, at the age of 37. She is buried beside Lord Byron (the father she never knew) in Nottinghamshire, England.

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