While watching an episode of Victoria on Masterpiece PBS, we were introduced to a fascinating woman of science, Lady Ada Lovelace. Her character intrigued me so much because of how unique she was for the time that I went on to research her even more! I wanted to focus a blog post on her and it has been challenging. Much of the math/computer science that Ada works with is complicated and does go over my head. I got some helped and ended up learning more about computers than I had known before. I persevered with this blog post because I think she is one of the forgotten people of history who left an important legacy. Those interested in computer history may know her name, but I had never heard of her until that episode of Victoria.
Lady Ada Lovelace is known for writing the first modern computer program in the 1840s. I was shocked when I first heard this statement because I ignorantly thought that there was no technology like a computer in the Victorian Era! When I think of that technology, I think of what we know in the modern day. In the Victorian era, there was not a computer in the modern sense, but there was the Difference Engine. The Difference Engine was created by Charles Babbage (who will play a large role in Ada’s story). The Difference Engine was a remarkable new technology for the era and was essentially a calculator, but it was only able to compute one operation of mathematics. The Difference Engine was a very large machine that, instead of using circuits to solve the problems, it used actual physical pieces. Ada herself was fascinated by this machine.
Ada Byron was born on December 10, 1815 to the famous Lord Byron and Lady Annabella Byron. Her father was already famous as a poet and for being involved in many scandals. Lord Byron was often in debt from living a lavish lifestyle which included boxing, gambling, women, etc. Despite being renowned as a poet (most famous work Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage) he was constantly in debt. He began to search for a rich wife and that was how Annabella Milbanke came into his life. Annabella fell hard for Lord Byron (as many women often did) though Byron was less interested. There was strange rivalry between the new Lady Byron and Augusta (Lord Byron’s half-sister/lover) and Lord Byron remained deep in debt. He proved to be selfish and wayward and a disappoint in a husband. On January 14th, 1816, Annabella made the choice to take the young Ada and leave her husband; mother and daughter would never see him again. Ada would never know her father and would be raised solely by her mother.
Ada grew up in the shadow of her father’s scandalous behavior and her mother’s shocking decision to leave him. Yet, Annabella pushed for her daughter to be well-educated with a focus in mathematics with the goal to suppress imagination. Annabella was very concerned with not allowing her daughter to end up like her poet father. Ada was half Byron and to Annabella, there was always a risk of her father’s behavior coming through. Ada was kept very sheltered during her childhood and probably felt lonely for a while. Yet, she quickly proved her genius in her studies (especially in mathematics) and began to imagine different scenarios. After a trip to Europe with her mother and company, she became obsessed with the idea of flying. She wrote about how she would make a flying machine and loved the challenge of this task. She imagined using the existing steam engine technology and combining that to mimic bird flight. She was only a young teenager!
“As soon as I have got flying to perfection, I have got a scheme about a…steam engine which, if ever I effect it, will be more wonderful than either steam packets or steam carriages. It is to make a thing in the form of a horse with a steam engine in the inside so contrived as to move an immense pair of wings, fixed on the outside of the horse, in such a manner as to carry it up into the air while a person sits on its back…”
She later writes…”I have now decided upon making much smaller wings than I before intended, and they will be perfectly well proportioned in every respect, exactly on the same plan and of the same shape as a bird’s. Though they will not be nearly enough to try and fly with, yet they will be quite enough so, to enable one to explain perfectly to any one my project for flying and will serve as a model form my future real wings…”
Though she never pursued this idea much further it shows the way Ada thought. Ada loved to solve problems and found joy in the process. Her mind always looked to the future of where ideas could take you. This way of thinking would also manifest when she began her work with Charles Babbage on the Analytical Engine.
When Ada met Charles Babbage, her life changed forever. She was 18 years old she was first presented at court (as was custom for young women) and met Babbage there. Ada was extremely excited to be meeting famous scientists and was fascinated by the Difference Engine, which Babbage would go on to explain to her. He invited Ada and her mother to come view the machine at his home not long after the meeting. Though Babbage had achieved a great accomplishment with this engine and he knew how to make the machine work, he was different from Ada. Ada saw the potential of the machine and how far it could be expanded in the future. The correspondence between Ada and Charles would span from June 1835 to August 1852 where they would bounce ideas off each other, especially in the development of the Analytical Engine.
Ada would go on to marry William, the future Lord Lovelace (a very wealthy catch) and have three children. From this point on she is referred to as Ada Lovelace/Lady Lovelace. Lord and Lady Lovelace had a good marriage though their differences sometimes caused disputes. Lord Lovelace knew his wife was more intelligent than he was and did encourage her to continue her work, but Ada was often frustrated with her husband’s “lack of purpose.” Ada continued to study mathematics (even after her children were born) and hired an instructor by the name of Augustus De Morgan who, at the time, was a professor at University College London and author of many textbooks.
Going back to the Analytical Engine, Charles Babbage envisioned a machine that could do even more than the Difference Engine. The Analytical Engine would be able to do many different mathematical operations. In correspondence between Ada, it was clear they were inspired by the Jacquard Loom. The Jacquard Loom used a punch card system to weave a portrait. Ada thought that this could be used in their own Analytical Engine but be used to do more than just one instruction or operation. Ada believed that if they created a punch card system (like in the Jacquard Loom) for the Analytical Engine it would be the best way to give instructions to the computer as what to do next. Yet, her punch cards would give instructions to do multiple operations rather just one (like weaving just the same portrait over again in the Jacquard Loom). The computer would read these punch cards and complete the operation as instructed. This system of punch cards that Ada discusses were used in modern computers through the late 20th century.
“The distinctive characteristic of the Analytical Engine, and that which has rendered it possible to endow mechanism with such extensive faculties as bid fair to make this engine the executive right hand of abstract algebra, is the introduction into it of the principle which Jacquard devised for regulating, by means of punched cards, the most complicated patterns in the fabrication of brocaded stuffs.
It is in this that the distinction between the two engines lies. Nothing of the sort exists in the Difference Engine. We may say most aptly, that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves….We believe that it is the only proposal or attempt ever made to construct a calculating machine founded on the principle of successive orders of differences, and capable of printing off its own results; and that this engine surpasses its predecessors, both in the extent of the calculations which it can perform, in the facility, certainty and accuracy with which it can effect them and in the absence of all necessity for the intervention of human intelligence during the performance of its calculations…” -From Ada’s Notes
The cycles/loops that Ada wrote are used in modern computers as well. She knew that by using these loops the Analytical Engine would become more sufficient. This would reduce the number of punch cards used, which allowed the operations to be completed faster. Babbage was the one who initially figured out how to make the machine work, but Ada saw the great potential that a device like this had for the future. In fact, Ada even wrote to Babbage proposing that she become the leader on this project they had together (“propositions for executing your engine, would there be any chance of your allowing myself and such parties to conduct the business for you; your own undivided energies being devoted to the execution of the work…”). Babbage did not accept this offer.
“Thus the engine may be considered as a real manufactory of figures, which will lend its aid to those many useful sciences and arts that depend on numbers. Again, who can foresee the consequences of such an invention! In truth, how many precious observations remain practically barren for the progress of the sciences, because there are not power sufficient for computing the results! And what discouragement does the perspective of a long and arid computation cast into the mind of a man of genius, who demands time exclusively for meditation, and who beholds it snatched from him by the material routine of operations!”- Ada, Notes
Unfortunately, with the change in government, Charles Babbage did not get the funds needed to create the Analytical Engine like he did with the Difference Engine. To this day the Analytical Engine has not been built, but Babbage and Ada had enough written that it is probable that the device would have worked if they had got the funding.
On November 27, 1852 Ada died at the young age of 36 due to cancer. It is unfortunate that we will never know how much further she could have taken her work in mathematics and technology had she lived longer. Ada was a genius and an “Enchantress of Number” according to her lifelong friend, Charles Babbage. She never ceased her hunger for learning and got to know many influential people (the famous Charles Dickens was amongst her group of intellectual friends). She loved to figure out problems and her notes regarding techniques and algorithms would go on to help develop modern computers. I wonder what she would think if she saw how technology progressed today. I think she is an amazing example of a woman during the Victorian era who went after her dreams and made an impact on the world, while also being a mother of three. It has been very interesting research Lady Lovelace and I learned a lot about computers in the process!
Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age By James Essinger
Special thanks to Nick for helping me understand how computers work!