Ada Lovelace: The First Computer Scientist

Name: Ada King, Countess of Lovelace

Born: December 10, 1815 in London England (Augusta Ada Byron)

Died: November 27, 1852 in London, England (Ada, Countess of Lovelace)

Education: Educated under her mother at a young age by tutors; instructed by Mary Sommerville (known as the Queen of 19th Century Science); and taught calculus by Augustus de Morgan.

ada-edited (Augusta Ada Lovelace. Credit: Linda Hall Library)

Early life:

Ada began life in 1815 as Augusta Ada Byron, daughter of Lady Byron and the infamous Lord Byron, whom Ada never really met. The course of Lord Byron’s life is relatively well known, and Lady Byron wanted to avoid her daughter ending up on the same path as her father at all costs (this endeavour was, however, ultimately unsuccessful).

Lady Byron was an intellectual who had a passion for mathematics, contrasting starkly against Lord Byron’s passion for poetry. Lady Byron had Ada tutored in many subjects, especially in mathematics, however she avoided poetry altogether. Lady Byron was a strict (read: incredibly controlling and manipulative) mother, who ensured that her daughter was well-educated. In fact, Ada was temporarily paralysed at a young age (approximately 9) from measles, but did not let her studies drop.

However, it was not only intellectual pursuits that Ada’s mother encouraged, but also real-world. Lady Byron took her daughter on a tour of northern England factories, where Ada first saw the Jacquard loom, famous for its incredible detail.

jacquard_loom-weaving_loom-102630736-lg(Jacquard Loom. Credit: Computer History Museum)

jacquard-ng-1840(Detailed coverlet, created by the Jacquard Loom. Credit: Gessler Collection)

Ada and Babbage:

It is in 1833 that Ada meets the love of her life; not her husband-to-be William King, but Charles Babbage’s counting machine. This Difference Engine would go on to inspire the theoretical Analytical Engine, the machine which would allow Ada’s intelligence to shine through the ages. Below is a brief history of Babbage’s engines (the full story is quite complicated, and filled with Victorian politics).

  • 1822: Babbage envisions the Calculating Engine
  • 1832: Babbage completes the prototype for the Difference Engine (this is the Calculating Engine, but under a different name)
  • 1841: Babbage presents the theoretical idea for the Analytical Engine to a conference in Turin, Italy. Luis Menabrea is present at these lectures
  • 1842: Menabrea publishes his article “Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage Esq.”

babbage-engine-main(Babbage’s Difference Engine. Credit: Computer History Museum)

Ada offers to translate Menabrea’s article for Babbage, as it is in French. It is suggested (sources differ as to who did the original suggesting) that Ada added notes to this translation. These notes are almost three times as long as the original article; however, their beauty is not that they are longer than Menabrea’s article, but that these notes extend upon the possibilities dreamt by either Menabrea or Babbage.

These notes spoke about cycles of operations (now an important concept in modern programming); these notes spoke of complicated mathematical operations such as calculus and combinatorics, a step up in complexity from Menabrea’s paper’s discussion of “the four operations” (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division); these notes discussed how using numbers as symbols, rather than purely as numbers, could lead to the machine creating music and graphics; these notes laid out the first computer program, discussing how the machine could calculate Bernoulli numbers (Bernoulli numbers are cool, but they’re complicated and math-y: google them if you’re interested).

These notes, quite literally, contained the future of computing.

“Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”

Ada Lovelace, Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage: Notes by the Translator

And yet, they almost went unpublished. Babbage threw an intellectual tantrum when Ada refused to add a passage criticising the British government over the lack of funding he received for developing his machine. Thank goodness, though, they were published: in Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs– a prestigious publication- in 1843. While the work was complete, the close working relationship of Ada and Babbage was irreparably broken.

 

Ada’s Demise:

After a few attempts at other scientific pursuits, Ada followed in her father’s famous footsteps. She began drinking and flirting, using opium and gambling, fell into a large amount of debt, and eventually died from suspected uterine cancer in 1852. The world only knew Ada Lovelace for 37 short years.

Study and Impacts:

Ada’s speciality was mathematics. She learnt geometry from a young age, and was then tutored in calculus by Augustus De Morgan. Her work in mathematics aided her in her Analytical Engine pursuit, especially in calculating Bernoulli numbers. While she loved mathematics, there is no apparent record of her contributing to the research in the field.

Ada also wanted to pursue biological and medical sciences, wishing to discover the “calculus of the nervous system”. However, due to her illness and other circumstances, which are unclear but possibly involve her gambling and opium use, this dream was never achieved.

Ada’s most lasting impression is in the field of computer science, and she is considered by many to be the first computer scientist. As explained above, she wrote a “program” for the Analytical Engine to calculate Bernoulli numbers. This program was to be created using punch cards like the one pictured below, in a similar way that the Jacquard loom used them. While this is obviously not the same as writing a program today, remember that this is mechanical, not digital, computing, and it was using the technology of the day to instruct the Analytical Engine to perform a function- a program.

jacquard-punch-card(Jacquard Loom Punch Cards. Credit: Gessler Collection)

One of Ada’s passions was combining her mother and father’s worlds: the intersection of the arts and the sciences. Her writings are often quite lyrical and poetic, and in correspondence with her mother she asks “If you can’t give me poetry, can’t you give me poetical science?”

While her achievements were small in number, they were certainly significant. If she had not been taken too quickly from this world, her intelligence and creativity could have contributed to the scientific world of her time. Who knows what our world would be like, if Ada Lovelace had stayed in it for a little longer.

Her time on earth may have been short, but that didn’t stop Ada from inspiring people in the future. Ada inspired Alan Turing (yes, the guy Benedict Cumberbatch played in The Imitation Game) when he discovered her notes after World War II. He used these notes when discussing Artificial Intelligence (AI). You may have heard of the Turing Test, a test designed to discover if whoever is taking it is a person or a machine. Ada’s notes helped shape his ideas on AI, and in her notes, she mentions that “[t]he Analytical engine has no pretensions whatever to originate any thing”. She is noting that the machine cannot think for itself, igniting the possibility that machines one day could think for themselves. Ada also inspired Suw Charman- Anderson, the woman who created Ada Lovelace Day, which in turn has inspired young women around the globe to explore science and technology. Interestingly, the US Department of Defence named a programming language after her, ADA.

Ada’s Mistreatment at the Hands of her Time:

While it is obvious to many that Ada Lovelace was unable to access the privileges held by her male colleagues, it is still important to note the privileges that she did enjoy. While yes, Ada was a woman, she was a rich, white woman with a highly educated mother. She was, in fact, a member of the British peerage at the time of her death. Her mother was firm in her stance on educating her, as well as allowing her to travel and meet important people. Ada also never needed to hold down a job or do much work at all to support her family, which allowed her to pursue her interests. This was not the case of most women in Britain at the time. Her situation allowed her access to networks of powerful people such as Charles Dickens, Mary Sommerville, and Charles Wheatstone, as well as Charles Babbage. Without these connections, Ada’s story could not have played out as it did.

However, in saying this, she certainly did not enjoy the luxuries that I have today, nor did she enjoy the luxuries of her male peers. As a woman, Ada was banned from attending university, despite being more than capable and intelligent enough to handle the work. This limited the amount of new information she could learn about the subjects she loved. She was also unable to become a member of the Royal Society, and therefore was unable to access their library and resources. This is despite the fact that her husband was a member (partially due to her efforts).

She was also denied a close circle of female friends with which to share her pursuits, as many of her friends in the peerage looked down upon a woman studying the sciences. Everyone needs friends and mentors to succeed, and while Ada had Sommerville and Babbage, it was not enough, especially as Babbage didn’t play well with others. Her options for collaboration partners was also limited: because she was a woman, and possibly also because of her father’s reputation as a scoundrel. Her work, even by historians, was often overlooked in favour of Babbage’s work. This is in spite of the fact that she saw the future of his machine, while he only saw the present and the past.

Ada’s Reaction to the Modern World:

I think Ada would absolutely love our modern world; it is literally called the “Information Age”. There are the obvious parts of our lives that she would appreciate: how far our knowledge has come in the last 160 years in computer and biomedical science. She would be absolutely enamoured by our obsession with computers. The concept of binary computing would be thrilling compared to the mechanical systems she knew. The concept of quantum computing would blow her mind in the best way.

But the way computers have infiltrated our daily lives- that would astound her. The fact that we have computers that sit inside our pockets. The fact that we have robots performing surgeries. The fact that people on the internet have competitions to build artificial intelligences, and compete them against each other. The fact that our computers can now create music, and have graphics dance across the screen. She would love this whole culture.

robot-violin

I also agree with Stephen Wolfram’s sentiments that she was a giant nerd, complete with math jokes, and postulate that she would probably love nerd culture and the online communities we have created.

colbert-nerd-gif

And let’s face it, she’d be happy to see that women can actually attend university, and have interests outside running their own home. Ada called herself “the bride of science” (definitely updating my relationship status), and in this day and age, she could definitely be one.

A less obvious aspect about today’s world that I think Ada would have liked is STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics). Ada was particularly fascinated at the intersection between the arts and science. She would quite possibly love the collaborations and initiatives connecting art and technology, bringing life to hard-to-access subjects.

Ada was one-of-a-kind. She saw connections that no one else did. She was both a product of her time and an antidote to her time. She lived in a time of innovation, where anything was possible, but she was also on the outside of the scientific sphere, allowing her a unique way to use her intelligence, to see things a different way. Her story shows the importance of diversity in STEM: without diversity of thought, and diversity of people, computer science wouldn’t be what it is today.

 

 

Bibliography

Campbell, P. W. (2003). The Amazing Adding Subtracting Composing Creating Do-everything Machine: Ada Lovelace Envisions Modern Computing. HUMANITIES, 24 (1). Retrieved from: https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2003/januaryfebruary/feature/the-amazing-adding-subtracting-composing-creating-do

Coe, I. & Fernwood, A. (2016, December 12) The Life and Contributions of Ada Lovelace: Unintended Consequences of Exclusion, Prejudice, and Stereotyping. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 35 (4), 46-49

Holmes, R. (2015). Enchantress of Abstraction. Nature, 525, 30-32.

“The Ada Lovelace Episode: Who was the Enchantress of Numbers?” 11 November 2009.
HowStuffWorks.com. <http://www.missedinhistory.com/podcasts/who-was-the-enchantress-of-numbers.htm&gt; 30 December 2016

Lovelace, A. (1842). Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage, Esq.: Notes by Translator. Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs (3). Retrieved from: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Scientific_Memoirs/3/Sketch_of_the_Analytical_Engine_invented_by_Charles_Babbage,_Esq./Notes_by_the_Translator

Menebrea, L. (1842). Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage, Esq. (A. Lovelace, Trans.) Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs (3). Retrieved from: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Scientific_Memoirs/3/Sketch_of_the_Analytical_Engine_invented_by_Charles_Babbage,_Esq.

Meriwether, D. (2016). Ada Lovelace. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopaedia. Retrieved from: https://eds-b-ebscohost-com.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/eds/detail/detail?sid=3e924752-86e1-41d2-82a1-174bcfb65b67%40sessionmgr107&vid=1&hid=112&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#AN=88806839&db=ers

Phillips, A. L. (2011). Crowdsourcing Gender Equality: Ada Lovelace Day, and its companion website, aims to raise the profile of women in science and technology. American Scientist, 99 (6), 463-464

Rotham, A. (1997). Meditations on Women in the History of Mathematics. Mathematics in Schools, 26 (3), 28-31

Wolfram, S. (2015). Untangling the tale of Ada Lovelace. Retrieved from: http://blog.stephenwolfram.com/2015/12/untangling-the-tale-of-ada-lovelace/n

Image sources:

Babbage’s Difference Engine: http://www.computerhistory.org/babbage/

Jacquard Loom: http://www.computerhistory.org/collections/catalog/102630736

Jacquard Punch Card and Coverlet: https://people.duke.edu/~ng46/topics/jacquard.htm

Lovelace Portrait: http://www.lindahall.org/ada-lovelace/

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5 thoughts on “Ada Lovelace: The First Computer Scientist

  1. Hi Naomi, really impressive blog! Not just for reminding us how important Ada’s work itself was in contributing to the technology we enjoy, but the importance of STEM and diversity to who we are and can become. Peter.

    Like

  2. Fabulous new blog!!! She was such an interesting woman – Just like this new blogger. Keep it coming. I will spread the word. The women of STEM!!!!

    Like

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