We are celebrating the extraordinary people responsible for invaluable technological innovations that have helped form the world as we know it. Their legacy cements them all in history as some of the brightest and most influential figures who continue to inspire today.
This blog examines mathematician, writer and one of the world’s earliest computer programmers, Ada Lovelace.
Ada Lovelace’s Background
Born Augusta Ada Byron in 1815, she was the sole child of Annabella Milbanke and the infamous romantic poet, George Gordon Byron- better known as Lord Byron. After a turbulent marriage, Annabella and Byron separated. Ada was taken to live with her maternal grandparents with her mother. Her father, addicted to laudanum, drink and fast living, died when his daughter was eight.
In order to avoid any possibility of young Ada developing a similar ‘poetic’ temperament to her volatile father, Annabella encouraged her daughter to indulge her interest in machines. She underwent a strict regime of scientific, logical and mathematical education- immensely unusual in this era- in order to develop the mental discipline that her father lacked. It was clear at an early stage of Ada’s education that she was particularly gifted. Her tutor, Augustus De Morgan, was a mathematician and said that had Ada been a man she would have had the potential to become ‘an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence’.
At 19 years old Ada married William King, an aristocrat who was made Earl of Lovelace in 1838. She was henceforth known as Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. Unusually for the era, Ada’s husband was happy to support and encourage his wife in her work and ambitions.
Ada met her lifelong friend and mentor Charles Babbage, a professor of Mathematics, in 1833. He had already gained a little notoriety for his vision of a huge clockwork counting and adding machine called the Difference Engine. This invention was intended to replace the method of solving mathematical problems that required logarithmic or trigonometric functions. Mathematicians could only reach answers by referring to large tables of numbers which were prone to error, with one mistake leading to the failure of an entire equation. However, the Difference Engine would work out these problems flawlessly. Despite the Government’s interest in this machine’s potential Babbage, abandoned the plans in favour of a new invention- the Analytical Engine.
It was Babbage’s Analytical Engine that would demonstrate Ada’s talent. This machine was more powerful than its predecessor, combining an array of adding gears with an elaborate punchcard operating system. It was never built, but it possessed all the essential elements of a modern computer, including an arithmetical unit, conditional branching and loops, and integrated memory.
An article had been written about the Analytical Engine by Luigi Menabrea. Babbage asked Ada to translate it and expand upon it due to her in-depth understanding for the mechanisms of the engine. Her final article was over three times the length of Menabrea’s, where she had noted the machine’s potential range of uses. Ada’s programmes for it were the most complete and elaborate, and were the first to be published. The article was entitled, “Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator”.This was the beginning of her legacy as ‘the first computer programmer’.
Her Contribution to Science
Ada’s expansion of the article demonstrated that in some ways she understood the Analytical Engine more than its inventor did. She certainly recognised its full potential more than Babbage by looking beyond the tables of numbers that it could calculate without error.
Ada realised that if the Analytical Engine could manipulate numbers, it could do the same with symbols. At the time, symbolic logic was a newly emerging field. Today it underpins modern computer programming. Symbolic logic would allow the Analytical Engine to undertake very complex tasks, processing an algorithm and producing an answer that had not been pre-programmed into it.
At only 36 years old, Ada died of cancer. She was buried next to her father in the Church of St. Mary Magdelene in Hucknall, Nottingham. Although she was never able to test her expanded theories on the Analytical Engine, Ada’s idea of a machine (or computer) that could reach answers when given the correct programming and inputs was a huge leap in science and 100 years ahead of its time.
Her ideas were rediscovered and put to use by Alan Turing during his time at Bletchley Park, the headquarters of enemy code-breaking espionage in the Second World War. Turing was an instrumental part of the team attempting to crack the seemingly impenetrable Enigma Code (the Enigma was a German enciphering machine used to send top-secret military messages). In the midst of his research, Turing came across Ada’s translation of the Menabrea article and her personal notes on the topic, which were critical in helping him crack the code,
Today there is an annual ‘Ada Lovelace Day’ on the 8th October. It is an international celebration of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, cementing Ada’s place in history as one of the most influential people in STEM subjects.
Ottilie Wood, Marketing Executive based at K2 Partnering Solutions HQ in London.