In a time when mathematics was “a man’s work,” Ada Lovelace was trained in aristocratic graces but pursued her passion for what later became computer science.
Many girls growing up in the aristocracy of Victorian-era London fantasized about dancing in elaborate ballrooms and marrying a favorable match. Ada Lovelace dreamed of building a flying machine.
She scoured periodicals for designs of new inventions, considering how a steam engine might power such a device, and studied the anatomy of birds to determine the proper proportion of wing length to body size to enable flight. Her design preceded Henson and Stringfellow’s patent for the aerial steam carriage by some 15 years.
She was only 12 at the time, but it was already clear that Lovelace would not stick to convention, eschewing science and mathematics, as women of her time were expected to do.
The daughter of philandering poet Lord George Gordon Byron and aristocratic Lady Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron, Lovelace did not follow in her father’s footsteps, as her mother feared she might. Instead, she found a language of her own and wrote the world’s first computer program, long before the advent of the first computer.
“Lovelace is a fascinating figure, not least because she made a huge leap when she foresaw the potential of a general purpose computing machine to create music or art,” said Suw Charman-Anderson, social technologist and founder of the annual international Ada Lovelace Day.
“She was so far ahead of her time that it seems none of her peers understood her vision.”
Breaking Free from Convention
Born in London on December 10, 1815, Augusta “Ada” Byron was the only legitimate daughter of the famous poet. However, Lord Byron was disappointed that the baby was not the “glorious boy” he expected. When his marriage failed, he left for Greece, never to return to England.
Lovelace was raised by her aristocratic mother and maternal grandmother, which is to say that she was raised primarily by nannies and tutors. Given the limited expectations for young women of the day, most girls were schooled in the arts and social graces.
Lady Byron, however, was intent that her daughter avoid nurturing any of her father’s “dangerous poetical tendencies” that might lurk in her DNA. She hired tutors to teacher her daughter mathematics and science.
Among Lovelace’s tutors were William Frend, a social reformer; William King, the family doctor; and Mary Somerville, a Scottish astronomer and mathematician who was one of the first women to be admitted into the Royal Astronomical Society.
From the start, Lovelace showed talent for mathematics and received encouragement. Even her absent father seemed to approve.
“I am told she is clever,” he once said. “But above all, I hope she is not poetical; the price paid for such advantages, if advantages they be, is such as to make me pray that my child may escape them.”
The Female Brain on Math
One of Lovelace’s teachers was Augustus de Morgan, a professor at the University of London who was interested in the emerging field of symbolic logic. Because women were not allowed to attend university, de Morgan agreed to teach Lovelace via correspondence.
He was conflicted by her talent and the potential hazards, since math was considered a man’s work. While he said that Lovelace had the potential to be “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence,” he was also worried that such weighty brainwork was, “beyond the strength of a woman’s physical power of application.”
Lovelace was undeterred.
“Ada was keen never to take ‘no’ for an answer,” said Anouk Wipprecht, a leading designer in today’s world of wearable technology and one of many contemporary computer scientists inspired by Lovelace. “This was especially important in her time, when woman were kept from any ‘male-mind’ kind of work.”
Lovelace’s determination paid off when, at age 17, she met Charles Babbage, an event that changed her life. Babbage, a mathematician and inventor, demonstrated a model of his difference engine, which was designed to perform mathematical calculations. Lovelace was fascinated and Babbage became Lovelace’s friend and mentor.
When, a few years later, Lovelace was asked to translate an article about another of Babbage’s invention designs, the analytical engine – essentially, an early mechanical computer – Lovelace obliged. The original article had been written in French by Italian engineer Luigi Menabrea.
Lovelace, who was fluent in French, not only translated the text into English, but took liberties in the process, adding copious annotations, including her own thoughts and ideas about the machine.
In these notes, which were three times as long as the original article, Lovelace described, step by step, how the machine could calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.
In short, she developed the world’s first theoretical software algorithm.
“The analytical engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves,” she wrote, describing the way it manipulated symbols, and enabled numbers to repeat and loop. concluding that the machine was capable of far more than mathematical calculations. It could, she believed, be used one day to create music or art.
The translated article, along with Lovelace’s notes, was published in an English science journal in 1843, roughly a century before the development of the modern computer.
“She took a path that no woman had taken before by questioning two theories and entities, then combining them,” said Wipprecht. “This led to groundbreaking formulas that are used in many of the machines we work with today.”
Though Lovelace’s article attracted little attention when she was alive, her work reemerged a century after her death when author B.Y. Bowden republished them in Faster than Thought, a history of computing in 1953.
Since then, Lovelace received numerous posthumous honors for her work, helping to inspire a new generation of women in STEM careers.
The U.S. Department of Defense named the computer language “Ada” after her. She is the subject of a Google doodle. And last year, on the 200th anniversary of her birth, the University of Oxford hosted a symposium in Lovelace’s honor, presenting recent research and information on her life and work, as well as linking her ideas to contemporary thinking about mathematics, computing and artificial intelligence.
Charman-Anderson created Ada Lovelace Day in 2009, as a way to celebrate Lovelace’s accomplishments, along with the achievements of all women working in technology.
In 2015, there were more than 150 independently organized Ada Lovelace Day events in more than 25 countries around the globe.
“Women still face a lot of challenges because of their gender, from glass ceilings to lower pay to dealing with everyday sexism,” said Charman-Anderson, who views Lovelace as a role model for change. “They need to see that their hard work surmounting these challenges is worth it and that success is possible.”