Prophet of the Computer Age

Ada: The Enchantress of Numbers

by Betty Alexandra Toole, Ed.D.

Ada Lovelace Biography

Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace, was one of the most picturesque characters in computer history. August Ada Byron was born December 10, 1815 the daughter of the illustrious poet, Lord Byron. Five weeks after Ada was born Lady Byron asked for a separation from Lord Byron, and was awarded sole custody of Ada who she brought up to be a mathematician and scientist. Lady Byron was terrified that Ada might end up being a poet like her father. Despite Lady Byron's programming Ada did not sublimate her poetical inclinations. She hoped to be "an analyst and a metaphysician". In her 30's she wrote her mother, if you can't give me poetry, can't you give me "poetical science?" Her understanding of mathematics was laced with imagination, and described in metaphors.

At the age of 17 Ada was introduced to Mary Somerville, a remarkable woman who translated LaPlace's works into English, and whose texts were used at Cambridge. Though Mrs. Somerville encouraged Ada in her mathematical studies, she also attempted to put mathematics and technology into an appropriate human context. It was at a dinner party at Mrs. Somerville's that Ada heard in November, 1834, Babbage's ideas for a new calculating engine, the Analytical Engine. He conjectured: what if a calculating engine could not only foresee but could act on that foresight. Ada was touched by the "universality of his ideas". Hardly anyone else was.

Babbage worked on plans for this new engine and reported on the developments at a seminar in Turin, Italy in the autumn of 1841. An Italian, Menabrea, wrote a summary of what Babbage described and published an article in French about the development. Ada, in 1843, married to the Earl of Lovelace and the mother of three children under the age of eight, translated Menabrea's article. When she showed Babbage her translation he suggested that she add her own notes, which turned out to be three times the length of the original article. Letters between Babbage and Ada flew back and forth filled with fact and fantasy. In her article, published in 1843, Lady Lovelace's prescient comments included her predictions that such a machine might be used to compose complex music, to produce graphics, and would be used for both practical and scientific use. She was correct.

When inspired Ada could be very focused and a mathematical taskmaster. Ada suggested to Babbage writing a plan for how the engine might calculate Bernoulli numbers. This plan, is now regarded as the first "computer program." A software language developed by the U.S. Department of Defense was named "Ada" in her honor in 1979.

After she wrote the description of Babbage's Analytical Engine her life was plagued with illnesses, and her social life, in addition to Charles Babbage, included Sir David Brewster (the originator of the kaleidoscope), Charles Wheatstone, Charles Dickens and Michael Faraday. Her interests ranged from music to horses to calculating machines. She has been used as a character in Gibson and Sterling's the Difference Engine, shown writing letters to Babbage in the series " The Machine that Changed the World" and I have gathered her letters and writings in "Ada, The Enchantress of Numbers: A Selection from the Letters of Lord Byron's Daughter and Her Description of the First Computer Though her life was short (like her father, she died at 36), Ada anticipated by more than a century most of what we think is brand-new computing.

Charles Dickens to Ada: Stop haunting me
When she was thirty-three, Ada spent some time in Brighton with Charles Dickens. Soon afterwards (18 February 1849), he wrote her that strange things were happening at his hotel. He wondered whether Ada was "haunting" him, and if so: "I hope you won't do so."
Three years later, Dickens visited Ada at her deathbed. He was one of the last non-family members, other than her physicians, to see her alive.


1641Blaise Pascal develops one of the first calculating machines
1784Augusta Mary Byron (Lord Byron's half sister) is born
1788Lord Byron (Ada's father) is born
1791Charles Babbage (Ada's closest friend) is born
1792Anne Isabella (Annabella) Milbanke (Ada's mother) is born
1793Start of the Napoleonic Wars
1804J. M. Jacquard invents apparatus to automate looms
1805William King (Ada's husband) is born
1811The Luddites fight industrialization
1812Lord Byron's maiden speech before Parliament
Lord Byron's first major poetical work, Childe Harold, is published
1815Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke wed (January 2)
Augusta Ada Byron is born in London (December 10)
Battle of Waterloo and the end of the Napoleonic Wars
Steamers on the Thames
1816Lord and Lady Byron separate (January 16)
Lord Byron leaves England (April 25)
1822Lady Noel (Lady Byron's mother) dies
1824Lord Byron dies in Greece (April 19)
1828Ada designs a flying machine
1829Ada gets the measles and becomes an invalid
1832Parliament passes Reform Bill, which expanded political power
1833Ada slowly recovers and is presented at court
Ada meets Charles Babbage and his Difference Engine
1834Babbage conceptualizes the Analytical Engine
1835Ada weds William King (July 8)
1836Ada's first child, Byron, is born (May 12)
1837Ada's second child, Anne Isabella (Annabella), is born (September 22)
Victoria crowned - The Victorian Era begins
1838William and Ada become Earl and Countess of Lovelace (June 30)
1839Ada's third child, Ralph Gordon, is born (July 2)
1840Lord Lovelace becomes Lord Lieutenant of Surrey
Babbage goes to Italy to discuss the Analytical Engine
Ada begins studying mathematics with De Morgan
1841Lady Byron reveals Ada's "Most Strange and Dreadful History"
1842Ada returns after a nine-month absence to her mathematical studies
L. F. Menabrea's description of the Analytical Engine is published in Switzerland (October)
1843Ada's translation and Notes are published (August)
1844Ada visits the Crosse household in late November
1850Ada visits her father's ancestral home, Newstead Abbey
1851The Great Exhibition, Queen Victoria's ball, and Derby Day
1852Ada dies (November 27)
1860Lady Byron dies (May 16)
1862Byron, now the Viscount Ockham, dies
1871Charles Babbage dies (October 18)
1890Hollerith of the United States uses the punch card for sorting and tabulating information for the United States Census
1893Lord Lovelace dies (December 29)
1931Vannevar Bush of MIT builds the first "modern large analog" computer
1946ENIAC - First digital computer built
1974Proposal by military for a common high-order computer language
1975First iteration of the language called Strawman, second iteration called Woodenman
1978A winning language selected after extensive review
1980Language named "Ada" in her honor
1984"Ada" becomes a trademark of the United States Department of Defense
Charles Babbage on Ada's notes:
"If you are as fastidious about the acts of your friendship as you are about those of your pen, I much fear I shall equally lose your friendship and your Notes. I am very reluctant to return your admirable & philosophic 'Note A.' Pray do not alter it . . . All this was impossible for you to know by intuition and the more I read your notes the more surprised I am at them and regret not having earlier explored so rich a vein of the noblest metal."

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