Lord Byron never knew his daughter, Ada. Born in December 1815, she was a month old when the poet’s wife Annabella (neé Milbanke), left him. Not long after he fled the country to escape his debts yet he immortalised the child in verse: “Is thy face like thy mother’s, my fair child?/ Ada! sole daughter of my house and heart.”
Ada, perhaps inheriting some of her father’s creative spirit, was an imaginative child. She dreamt of flying but not as other little girls might. Instead she studied birds and made elaborate plans for engineering pairs of wings. Later a close friendship with Charles Babbage developed. He invented the analytical engine and is hence often called the “father of the computer”.
In his book A Female Genius: How Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s Daughter, Started The Computer Age, author James Essinger says she had far more insight into the potential of Babbage’s invention than he did yet Ada’s vision was tragically disregarded because of her sex.
By the 1830s Britain’s industrial revolution had filled the land with steam engines and all manner of ambitious and ingenious inventions. It was also a time when women were considered biologically and intellectually inferior to men and rarely educated to any level beyond that required to run a household.
In 1833, aged 17, just a month after she had been presented at court, Ada met Charles Babbage for the first time and was fascinated to hear of his difference engine, a mechanical calculator.
She and her mother were invited to view the device and an unusual friendship was born.
While building his difference engine, Babbage saw that it could be improved upon and instead began work on what he called his analytical engine.
It was to have as many as 20,000 cogwheels and, had it been built, would have been the size of a small steam locomotive.
Ada married William, Lord King (later elevated to the Earldom of Lovelace) in 1835 and they went on to have three children.
Yet she found a traditional wife’s role deeply unsatisfying, longed for a more intellectual life and actively pursued a study of mathematics.
When Italian mathematician Federico Luigi Menabrea wrote a paper on Babbage’s analytical engine, Ada offered to translate it and Babbage suggested that she add some notes of her own.
She did. Some 20,000 additional words that demonstrate her full understanding of the highly technical way in which the machine was designed to operate.
Yet it is in her less technical observations and hypothesising that Essinger believes her real genius can be seen. “Babbage himself didn’t seem to realise what he invented,” he says.
Babbage believed his machine to be great and indeed it was. Yet he saw it merely as a calculator; only Ada saw its true potential: that it was really the first step towards a programmable computer.
“The analytical engine does not occupy common ground with mere calculating machines,” she wrote. “It holds a position wholly on its own.”
She saw that developing a mechanism “to combine together general symbols in successions of unlimited variety and extent, a uniting link is established between the operations of matter and the abstract mental processes of the most abstract branch of mathematical science.”
She refers to “an abstract science of operations” which is, in effect, what we think of as computing and even predicted that such machines could be used to compose music.
“Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”
Essinger explains: “She understood back in 1843 what a computer was. She understood that this machine Babbage had invented could be used for anything. She intuited that linking the real world and abstract mathematics through a machine that could calculate things impossible for humans opened up a whole new realm of science.”
Babbage was at least partially aware of Ada’s abilities.
He described her, to scientist Michael Faraday among others, saying she was: “An enchantress who has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects could have exerted over it.”
Yet when Ada formally offered her services to Babbage, both her “head” and her organisational and diplomatic skills, he refused.
Babbage was refused funding for the analytical engine by prime minister Robert Peel.
Even without her insights into the potential of his machine, had he allowed Ada to help him, her connections and charms might have effected a different decision.
“If Parliament had got behind him, there is no reason the analytical engine couldn’t have been done,” says Essinger. “If it had been built in the 1840s or 1850s it would have revolutionised Victorian society.
“People would have become computer literate. They would have realised punched cards could have let them store information, for example in banks, instead of using ledgers which were extraordinarily cumbersome.”
Who knows what mark Ada might have made had she lived long enough to persuade anyone of her visionary breakthrough?
Having been frail for much of her life she began, in 1851, to suffer from uterine cancer and died on November 27, 1852. She was just 36, the same age her father had been at his death. Charles Dickens was another of Ada’s friends among the luminaries of the day.
At her request he visited and read to her on her death bed the scene from Dombey And Son in which Paul Dombey dies. Hardly a cheerful choice but apparently Ada’s own.
These days Ada Lovelace lends her name to popular software language Ada, developed by the US Ministry of Defense in the Seventies. Ada Lovelace Day was founded in 2009 to celebrate the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths.
This year’s event falls on Tuesday but even today Essinger still believes she is not given her proper due. “Because she got a raw deal, so did the world. That sexism, in my opinion, delayed the computer revolution by a century.”
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