In her 1843 translation of an article on Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, Ada Byron Lovelace (1815-1852) added notations three times the length of the original text. The "Notes" earned her a place in computer history when they were later recognized as the first detailed description of a computer, including what is now considered a software program. In recognition of her enlightened ideas that were over 100 years before their time, the United States Department of Defense named its Ada programming language after her in 1980.
Though she was born the daughter of the notorious English Romantic poet, Lord Byron, Ada Byron Lovelace chose to pursue the more objective field of mathematics. She proved to be her father's daughter, though, for her sense of passion was arguably as strong as her father's, despite her mother's attempts to suppress any "Byronic" tendencies in her. She went against traditional Victorian society by studying mathematics which was a discipline few women attempted. The height of her passion for mathematics can be seen in her "Notes" on Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, a calculating device that was never actually built. She wrote with tremendous insight and her ideas about the capabilities of an analytical engine became reality in 20th century computers which earned her a place in the history of mathematics and computer science.
Lord Byron's Legitimate Daughter
Augusta Ada Byron was born on December 10, 1815 in London, England, and was Byron's only legitimate child. Five weeks after her birth, her mother, Lady Byron, left her abusive husband. On April 24, 1816 a deed of separation was signed and Lord Byron left England for good. Ada never saw her father again for he died eight years later in Greece. However, he did correspond with Lady Byron regarding her well-being and her studies. He also wrote of her in his poetry. The line, "ADA! sole daughter of my house and heart, " can be found in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto III.
After Lord Byron's departure, Lady Byron took control of her daughter's upbringing. This control included the suppression of any undesirable traits that may have inherited from her father. In her book, The Calculating Passion of Ada Byron, Joan Baum notes, "Lady Byron had insisted on the cultivation of mathematics primarily because its discipline represented for her the direct opposite of everything associated with her depraved husband: dangerous fancy, melancholy moods, evil, even insanity." Baum also stated that "Mathematics was first for Lady Byron a mode of moral discipline. Accordingly, she arranged a full study schedule for her child, emphasizing music and arithmetic-music to be put to purposes of social service, arithmetic to train the mind."
A Passion for Numbers
By her early teenage years, Ada realized she had a true passion for numbers not unlike that of her father's passion for poetry. Lady Byron provided tutors of high distinction for her such as William Frend, a Cambridge mathematician, who instructed Ada in the areas of astronomy, algebra and geometry. Another tutor, Augustus De Morgan, was the first Professor of Mathematics at the newly founded University of London. He described Ada as "an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence" according to Dorothy Stein in her book, Ada: A Life and a Legacy. "Indeed, it was a desire for mathematical glory, rather than a particular kind of mathematics, that compelled Ada, " concluded Baum.
This passion continued throughout the rest of her life as Stein demonstrates in a quote from an 1843 letter Lovelace wrote to Babbage, "I hope another year will make me really something of an Analyst. The more I study, the more irresistible do I feel my genius for it to be. I do not believe that my father was (or ever could have been) such a Poet as I shall be an Analyst, (& Metaphysician)."
The Countess of Lovelace
On July 8, 1835, Ada Byron married William King who was then the eighth Baron King. In 1838, he became the 1st Earl of Lovelace and she became the Countess of Lovelace. The following year, Lord Lovelace also became lord lieutenant of Surrey. Her husband was 11 years older than she and considered to be somewhat reserved. He did, however, take pride in his wife's mathematical talents and supported her endeavors. His approval was quite fortunate for Ada Byron Lovelace as few women of her station in Victorian England were encouraged to pursue academic interests of any kind. In fact, those of the aristocracy considered it to be beneath them to practice a profession. For that reason, Lovelace only signed the initials, "A.A.L." to her "Notes." Consequently, she was limited by her class status as much as by her gender with regard to her passion for mathematics.
Charles Babbage and the "Notes"
Lovelace first met Babbage when she was 18 at a dinner party hosted by Mary Fairfax Somerville, the 19th century's most prominent woman scientist. Despite the fact that he was 23 years her senior, Babbage became her good friend and intellectual mentor. She was immediately intrigued when she first saw Babbage's Difference Engine and plans for the Analytical Engine in 1834. The perfect opportunity for Lovelace to study the Analytical Engine came after Babbage's 1840 lecture in Turin, Italy. An Italian military engineer by the name of Luigi Federico Menabrea wrote an article on the lecture that was printed in a French publication in 1842. Lovelace's translation of Menabrea's article from French to English and her accompanying notations were published in the prestigious Taylor's Scientific Memoirs the following year.
Lovelace labeled her seven "Notes" with the letters A through G. The word "computer" did not mean in the 19th century what it came to mean in the 20th century. Rather, it referred to a device that only did arithmetic or a person whose job was to add up numbers. Therefore, Lovelace never used the word in her "Notes."
"Note A" distinguished between Babbage's Difference Engine and his Analytical Engine. This note was significant in that it described a general purpose computer that would not be invented for more than 100 years. In "Note B, " Lovelace looked at the concept of computer memory and the ability to insert statements to indicate what is happening to the person looking at the program. This idea is similar to the current practice of using REM or non-executable remark statements in a program.
Lovelace expanded on a method called "backing" in "Note C." This allowed for the operation cards to be put back in the correct order so that they could be used again and again like a loop or subroutine. "Note D" was a very complex explanation of how to write a set of instructions or a program to accomplish a set of operations. "Note E, " aptly stated by Baum, clearly "emphasize[d] the versatility of the Analytical Engine and suggests, in its brief description of operation cards which designate cycles, modern-day function keys."
"Note F" explained how the Analytical Engine could solve difficult problems and eliminate error. This would allow for the solving of problems that were prohibitive due to the constraints of time, labor and funds. Baum also noted that Lovelace wondered "if the engine might not be set to investigate formulas of no apparent practical interest … as computers are used today, to find problems rather than to solve them."
The last and probably the most mathematically complex and most quoted of Lovelace's notations was "Note G." In this note, she stated what some have referred to as "Lady Lovelace's Objection" or, in the more modern phrasing, "garbage in, garbage out." Basically, she was saying that the computer's output is only as good as the information it is given. "Note G" also included an actual illustration of how the engine could produce a table of Bernoulli numbers.
Lovelace faced numerous illnesses throughout her life. As a child, she had bouts with both measles and scarlet fever. Byron received a report on Lovelace's health stating that she "had symptoms of fullness of the vessels of the head … varying in degree during different parts of the day, never very severe but never or scarcely ever totally absent" according to Doris Langley Moore in her book, Ada, Countess of Lovelace: Byron's Legitimate Daughter. Byron had had the same affliction, possibly migraine headaches which can be hereditary, until he was 14.
In 1829, Lovelace suffered an unidentified ailment that left her unable to walk for many months. She was also subject to convulsive fits and there was speculation that they may have been due to a mental rather than a physical condition. None of these conditions, though, caused any permanent disabilities. In fact, Lovelace was an accomplished dancer, horseback rider and gymnast. Only uterine cancer would prove to be insurmountable for her.
Lovelace's life was also fraught with difficulties of her own making. She not only had a passion for mathematics, she had a passion for men of mathematics. She was known to have had affairs with several men whose attention she initially sought on an intellectual level. Her affair with John Crosse proved to be the most devastating. She pawned the Lovelace diamonds to pay his gambling debts, and it is possible that he was blackmailing her as well. Lovelace, too, fell victim to the vice of gambling and enlisted the help of some of her male friends to place bets for her.
A Place in History
Lovelace's passions far exceeded her body's limits. She died on the evening of November 27, 1852 of uterine cancer at the age of 36, the same age at which her father had died. At her request, she was buried beside her father in the Byron vault at Hucknall Torkard, near Newstead Abbey, the ancestral home of the Byrons in Nottinghamshire. This last request was prompted by a visit in 1850 to Newstead Abbey where Lovelace finally made peace with her father's memory.
Though Lovelace's "Notes" were well received by those who knew her, there is no indication of how they were taken by the general public. In fact, she did not obtain widespread recognition until the historian, Lord B.V. Bowden, rediscovered her "Notes" in 1952 and had them reprinted the following year, 110 years after their original publication.
Posthumous mathematical glory was probably not what Lovelace had in mind when she was alive. However, she would have undoubtedly been pleased with a fourth-generation programming language being named after her. In the words of Baum, Lovelace "was the world's first extensive expositor of a computing machine. She was also a fascinating woman, interesting as much for her motives as for her work, illustrating as she does the theme of creative energy in collision with suppressed desire."
Further Reading on Ada Byron Lovelace, Countess of Lovelace
Baum, Joan, The Calculating Passion of Ada Byron, Archon Books, 1986.
Moore, Doris Langley, Ada, Countess of Lovelace: Byron's Legitimate Daughter, Harper & Row, 1977.
Stein, Dorothy, Ada: A Life and a Legacy, The MIT Press, 1985.
"Ada Byron Lovelace: The First Computer Programmer, " AIMS Education Foundation, http://www.aimsedu.org (March 15, 1998).
"Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, " Sonoma State University, http://www.sonoma.edu/Math/faculty/Falbo/adabyron.html (March 15, 1998).