Ada Lovelace

Today, 24 March, is Ada Lovelace day; an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. Who better to write about than Ada Lovelace herself, a 19th century woman who vies with Grace Hopper as one of the great female pioneers of computing.

Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron in 1815, the daughter of Lady Annabella Byron and the British Romantic poet Lord Byron. Ada never knew her “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” father (the description given by his lover Caroline Lamb). The impetuous Byron and the logical Annabella were an ill-matched couple. He called her the Princess of Parallelograms and they parted on bad terms. He died in Greece in 1824 when his only daughter was just eight.

By then it was clear that Ada was extraordinarily talented. She could solve difficult maths problems and was intrigued by numbers, equations and calculations. She was also fascinated by the mystery of flight and determined to create a set of human wings in an involved process she called “Flyology”. Her worried mother invited three unmarried female friends to live with them in Mortlake hoping they would be a good influence on her brilliant but wayward daughter. Ada hated the three chaperones as interfering busybodies and spies who watched her every move.

Her first love was William Turner who was employed to teach her shorthand. Ada was 16 and two years younger than her new tutor. They got along well despite the overbearing chaperones and she accepted William’s proposal of marriage. The pair eloped but were quickly caught. William was banished from the house and never seen again. Ada decided from then on she would keep her love for numbers.

Aged 18, she was introduced to Charles Babbage at his house in London’s Dorset St. She was there to see the inventor’s latest creation the Silver Dancer. The Dancer was a lifelike clockwork toy which did a never-ending cycle of pirouettes. Young Ada was fascinated by the Dancer and wanted to know more about its strange creator.

Babbage was the original nutty professor. He invented shoes that could walk on water, a method of delivering messages by overhead cable, a machine that played noughts and crosses, a means of checking the condition of railway tracks and lights to enable communications between land and sea. His lasting claim to fame was the Difference Engine. The Engine which was the size of a large trunk and resembled a giant clock. It contained hundreds of cogs and wheels which were numbered from 0 to 9. Ada labelled it the Thinking Machine.

The Engine was incomplete and Babbage never finished it in his lifetime. But he showed Ada how it worked and soon it was spitting out numbers 8,10,12,14 and so on, each time adding 2. Babbage and Ada struck up a partnership and she helped him build the next stage: an analytical engine. She spent two years making the necessary calculations and solving complex problems for the prototype of the world’s first computer. But Babbage could not afford the tubes needed to complete it.

Aged 20, Ada met and married a Warwickshire man Lord King who was also known as William Lovelace. They had three children: George, Annabella and Ralph. Ada was not a great mother. She became ill and unable to eat or sleep. But she continued to work with Babbage. The inventor adapted the punched cards used by Jacquard, the French silk weaver. The cards would be used to feed in the information to the Engine to make the calculations. Ada’s job was to describe how the Thinking Machine would work based on the translations of the Italian philosopher Luigi Menabrea. After two years she published “Menabrea: Sketch of the Analytical Engine”.

The book was an immediate sensation and Ada became as famous as her late father. She was 28 and at the height of her powers. But illness and death were not far away. She suffered bad stomach cramps and headaches and made it worse by a dubious magnetism cure. In 1851, a uterine examination revealed “a very deep and extensive ulceration of the womb”. She died a year later of cancer, aged 36. But her legacy to the computer would live long after her.

In May 1979, Commander John D. Cooper came up with a name which the US Department of Defence’s High Order Language Working Group (HOLWG) could accept for their new programming language: It was to be called “Ada”. HOLWG contacted Ada’s descendent Lord Lytton for permission to use the name. Lytton was enthusiastic and pointed out that the letters “Ada” stood “right in the middle of radar”.

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