Ada Lovelace changed computing one hundred years after her death

Watercolour portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, circa 1840
Her remarkable vision and understanding of computer science was lightyears ahead of its time. | Image: Wikimedia Commons

Heralded as the world’s first computer programmer, our modern age has a lot to thank Ada Lovelace for. Her remarkable vision and understanding of computing was lightyears ahead of its time. Although she lived and worked during a time dominated by men, Ada left an unparalleled mark on the world of computer science, which went unrecognised until nearly a century after her death. Her work would eventually inspire the thoughts of Alan Turing who helped develop the first modern computers.

Born in 1815, Augusta Ada Byron was the only legitimate child of famed romantic poet Lord Byron. Her parents acrimoniously split just a month after Ada was born, with Lord Byron having a multitude of affairs, including one with his own half-sister. A short while later, he left England never to return again. He died when Ada was just eight years old and the pair never had any kind of relationship.

This meant Ada was left in the parental care of her mother. Lady Byron had close oversight of her daughter’s upbringing and feared that she might inherit some of her father’s perceived madness. Therefore, she kept Ada focussed on mathematical and scientific studies.

Lady Byron was herself a keen mathematician and hoped the subject would ground Ada in the world of the logical and not the ‘romantic excess’ that she believed her father so often lived in. Educated at home like so many aristocratic children were in those days, Ada enjoyed the benefits of some of the very best tutors available.

Although she suffered from many ailments growing up, some leaving her bedridden for months on end, Ada’s evolving love of science, maths and machines kept her occupied for hours upon end. At the age of 17, her mathematical abilities began to shine through. Spurred on by some of the greatest minds of her time, Ada honed her craft.

One of her tutors was famed Scottish astronomer and mathematician Mary Somerville, with whom Ada developed a close relationship. It was through this relationship that Ada came to meet Charles Babbage in 1833, a person who changed her life forever.

Babbage was a pioneer of computer science, inventor and mechanical engineer. Some historians consider him to be the ‘father of the computer’.

The pair quickly developed a close working friendship. Ada was in awe of Babbage’s inventions, whilst Babbage was impressed with Ada’s mathematical mind and intellect, coming to refer to her as ‘The Enchantress of Number’.

Babbage was working on a project to develop a machine called the Difference Engine, an automatic mechanical calculator. The British government had invested a large sum of money in the project, totalling millions of pounds by today’s standards. Understandably, Ada became fascinated with the machine and visited Babbage as often as she could.

As Ada's friendship with Babbage began to blossom, so did her personal life and she wed nobleman and scientist William King in 1835. Although Ada engaged in an extra-marital affair, King forgave her when he found out. The pair went on to have three children together.

In 1838, King was made Earl of Lovelace, making Ada the Countess of Lovelace. Balancing home life with her passion for science, Ada kept in close contact with Babbage over the coming years.

Although Babbage failed to deliver the Difference Engine, his next project defined both his legacy as well as Ada’s. Government funding had dried up due to the failure of the first project, but the new concept was a major leap forward, technologically speaking.

The Analytical Engine was a more powerful beast that contained all the elements of a modern computer and could even be programmed to do difficult calculations using punched cards. In all respects, it was the world’s first computer.

The complex design of the machine fascinated Ada, who started to obsessively study the concept of the device. In 1842, she was asked to translate a short article by Italian mathematician and future Prime Minister, Luigi Menabrea. The article was written in French, a language that Ada was fluent in, and the content was about Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Knowing that Ada understood the machine so well, Babbage asked her to expand upon Menabrea’s article, adding notes to it.

After working on the article for nearly a year, Ada produced a final paper three times the length of Menabrea’s original piece, which was then published under the title ‘Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage, with Notes by the translator’.

Within her elaborate set of notes, Ada had laid out algorithms designed to be carried out by the machine, otherwise known as the world's first computer program. She also laid out other visionary statements, seeing the broader potential of the machine beyond just mathematics, something that even Babbage didn’t realise.

‘[The Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations’, Ada wrote. ‘…the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.’

Nearly a century before these kinds of capabilities were realised, Ada had foreseen the true potential of computing devices. The idea that the machine could manipulate symbols to enable the computer to do practically anything, is the foundation that modern computer programming is based upon.

Ada’s vision was revolutionary although she didn't live long enough for her work to be appreciated. She passed away at the same age her father died, 36, due to uterine cancer.

Unbuilt, the Analytical Engine remained a vision until Ada’s notes inspired Alan Turing during his work on the first modern computers in the 1940s. Not only did Ada change the world of technology, but she also blazed a trail in science for generations of women to follow.