Ada Lovelace is considered to be the first computer programmer. Her mother ensured that Ada received an education that was not typical for women at the time. She learned math and science and ended up making a significant contribution to the field of computer programming. She is most famous for the notes she wrote regarding a paper on the ideas of Charles Babbage.
Ada was born on December 10, 1815. She was the daughter of renowned poet Lord Byron and Lady Isabella Milbanke Byron. The marriage was not a happy one and Lady Bryon asked for a separation from her husband five weeks after Ada was born. Lord Bryon left the country and Ada never saw her father again.
Lady Bryon did not want her daughter to become a poet like her ex-husband so she insisted that Ada’s tutors teach her both mathematics and science. Lady Bryon hoped that by studying these difficult subjects, Ada would not develop the same difficult personality as Ada’s father. Ada’s mother also forced Ada to lie still for long periods in an effort to teach her self-control.
Even though Lady Byron hoped that Ada would not become a poet, Ada still had a strong interest in poetry and in later life, would complain to her mother about the lack of poetry in her life. Ada wrote to her mother stating “if you can’t give me poetry, can’t you give me poetical science?”
Although Lady Byron wanted to protect her daughter from developing Lord Byron’s personality, she was mainly a distant mother.She did pretended to be more heavily involved in her daughter’s life than she actually was because she was worried that she would lose custody of Ada to Lord Byron. The laws at that time favoured the father when it came to custody of a child.Lady Byron’s mother, Judith, helped raise Ada until Judith’s death when Ada was six years old. After this, various nannies looked after Ada.
Ada was tutored at home and even though Lady Byron ignored Ada to some extent, she did ensure that Ada received the best education possible. As a result, Ada was exposed to a number of subjects, such as mathematics and science, that women typically did not study during this period in time.Lady Byron wanted her daughter to receive the same excellent education that she did. Ada’s mother also ensured that Ada fit in with society.
One of her tutors, Augustus De Morgan was an important mathematician studying symbolic logic. Morgan was impressed by Ada’s mathematical ability and felt that if she were a man, she would have been an important mathematician. Morgan was concerned that Ada’s extensive focus on math was damaging her health. By the age of eight, Ada was experiencing headaches that would affect her vision. Morgan stated that her health would continue to suffer if she continued to study since he thought that the mathematical problems Ada was dealing with were too much for a woman to handle.
When Ada was twelve years old, she decided that she wanted to fly. She began by planning out the whole process. She figured out the material she would need for her wings. She also examined bird anatomy to help determine the correct size of the wings compared to the body. She even wrote a book, Flyology, and drew pictures to illustrate her findings. She worked on her project until her mother, who felt she was neglecting her studies, made her stop.
When Ada was thirteen years old, shecaught the measles and was paralyzed. She had to stay in bed for a year and it took her two years before she was able to walk again, although, she needed to use crutches to do it.
Another tutor that taught Ada wasMary Somerville, who was to become a good friend. Somerville was a mathematician and astronomer. In fact, she was one of the first women members of the Royal Astronomical Society. It was Mary Somerville who introduced Ada to Charles Babbage, a man many people consider to be the father of the computer.
When Ada was seventeen years old, she met Charles Babbage at a dinner party held by Mary Somerville. Babbage was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. At this party, Babbage spoke about his ideas for what he called the Difference Engine—a machine that could calculate numbers with the turn of a handle. Up until this point, mathematicians had to look up numbers on a variety of charts and tables. Unfortunately, these charts and tables had a number of errors which would affect the mathematician’s work.
Ada was fascinated by these ideas and Babbage invited her and her mother to his study to look at a prototype that he had been attempting to build. Although Ada was not in a position to help Babbage with his machine, she asked him for a copy of the blueprints so that she could completely understand the new machine and how it worked.
Babbage received funding from the British government to build his Difference Engine, but he never completed it. Instead of building the Difference Engine, he started to work on an even more complex machine which he called the Analytical Engine. The British government was not impressed and refused to fund the new machine.
Ada and Babbage began to write letters to one another over the course of the next thirteen years. In these letters, Ada described her ambitions while Babbage discussed his plans. Ada spent a lot of time studying Babbage’s Analytical Engine and soon had a good understanding of how the machine would work.
Ada married William King in 1835 when she was nineteen years old. King was ten years older than Ada and although Lady Byron approved of the match, she insisted that Ada tell King about an affair Ada had with her tutor. Ada had attempted to elope with the tutor but the couple were caught. The incident was covered up, but Lady Byron felt King should know about the incident before the couple got married.
Ada told King about the affair, but King was not concerned and the marriage continued. Three years later, William became the Earl of Lovelace and Ada became the Countess of Lovelace. They had three children together and most scholars believe that William supported Ada’s interest in mathematics and science. The couple had an active social life and often socialized with leading figures of the time, including Charles Dickens and the scientist Michael Faraday.
Ada is most famous for the notes she wrote about a paper written by Luigi Federico Menabrea. The paper was written in French and she translated it.
Babbage didn’t publish a lot of material on his work on computational machines but during a presentation he gave in 1941, Babbage described his work on the Analytical Engine. Menabrea took this information and wrote about Babbage’s work. The article was published in a Swiss journal.
In 1843, Ada translated the article and showed it to Babbage. Babbage encouraged Ada to add her own notes to the paperhighlighting her thoughts about the Analytical Engine. Her notes ended up being three times as long as the actual journal article. The journal article was approximately eight thousand words long but when Ada’s notes were added to the article, it was twenty thousand words long.
Each note that Ada wrote was labelled with a letter and the work was published in a scientific journal (Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs). Ada did not use her name on the published work. She only used the initials A. A. L. which stood for Augusta Ada Lovelace. It was common for women to publish material using only their initials because of the attitude towards women at the time.
Babbage believed that his machine could only be used to calculate numbers but Ada saw a lot more potential. She realized that if the machine could use numbers, it could also use symbols. Symbolic logic was a new field (Ada’s friend and tutor Augustus De Morgan was at the forefront of the new field) which used symbols to take the place of terms and propositions. Ada realized that Babbage’s Analytical Engine could use symbols to conduct much more complex tasks than simply calculating numbers. Symbolic logic is the basis for all computer programming.
Ada believed that the Analytical Engine could become a general purpose computer as long as it had the correct programming and input, and that it could beused to create music, graphics, and writing. This was the first time that the concept of a general purpose computer had been set out. It was a revolutionary idea and many people had a hard time understanding the concept. Ada was able to describe the issues that are fundamental to modern computer science.
The First Computer Program
In one of her notes (Note G), Ada described what has become known as the first computer program. It was a program to calculate a complex set of numbers called Bernoulli numbers. Ada wanted to show that the Analytical Engine could calculate the numbers by simply following a set of instructions.
Note G describes how the mathematics for calculating Bernoulli Numbers could be turned into a simple formula which could then be calculated by the Analytical Engine. The note also showed how to program the formula into a set of instructions that the Analytical Engine could use.
Babbage had earlier written a similar program but Ada’s version was a lot better and was the first one to be published. This program is the reason why Ada is known as the first computer programmer.
Shortly after completing the notes, Ada began to experience a number of health problems. In 1837, she ended up with cholera as well as suffering from asthma and problems with digestion. She was given opium and laudanum for the pain and as a result she began to experience mood swings and hallucinations. She also drank heavily which affected her mood as well.
Ada was also a heavy gambler and had to sell the family jewels to cover her gambling losses. When she died, she owed 2000 pounds.
Ada developed uterine cancer and died on November 27, 1852. She was thirty-six years old at the time of her death. She requested that she be buried next to her father (who also died at thirty-six) in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottingham.
It took almost a hundred years before Ada was recognized for her contribution to the field of computer science. Alan Turning discovered her notes which helped him to form his ideas around computers although he disagreed with Ada’s conclusion that machines could never think.
Her notes were republished in 1953 by B.V. Bowden in his book Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines.
There is some debate as to Ada’s actual influence on computing and whether she deserves the title of first computer programmer. Bruce Collier, a historian who has studied Babbage’s life, believes that Ada’s contribution to Babbage’s work has been overstated and that she barely understood Babbage’s machine.
Two main objections have been made regarding Ada’s work. The first is that she had trouble understanding calculus. She wrote to her tutor and friend De Morgan about her trouble with the subject. People have argued that since she had such trouble with calculus then she couldn’t have been able to write the program for calculating Bernoulli numbers.
The second objection is that Babbage actually wrote the Bernoulli program and not Ada. In his memoirs, Babbage wrote that he encouraged Ada to add her notes but he had worked out the problems with the Bernoulli numbers; although, he does state that Ada corrected a major mistake that he made in the process. This actually negates the first claim because if Ada was not capable of writing the Bernoulli program, then she would have been incapable of catching the major mistake that Babbage made in his program.
Also, letters written between Ada and Babbage show that the actual program written by Babbage was lost and Ada had to rewrite it. Babbage reviewed Ada’s new program and wrote that he liked the “improved form of the Bernoulli Note.” This shows that Ada clearly understood the program and was even able to write her own program that improved on Babbage’s original.
Even with the controversy, Ada has received a number of honours (after her death) and in 1980, the U.S. Department of Defense even named a new computer programming language Ada after Ada Lovelace.