One of the most influential intellectuals in history was a noblewoman who lived in England in the 19th century. Today, Ada Lovelace is credited with creating the first computer program, a century before the first computer was built. Lovelace's work demonstrated what was possible, laying the groundwork for the development of today's computer software.
Who Was Ada Lovelace?
Those who have studied English literature may be surprised to learn that Ada Lovelace, both Augusta Ada Byron, was the daughter of renowned poet Lord Byron. Her mother was Lady Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron, a very religious and educated woman. Young Ada displayed a talent in mathematics from an early age. One of her most renowned works is the translation of an article about a machine invented by Charles Babbage: She added her own commentary to the translation that was longer than the article itself, including details about how the machine could be used to carry out a series of instructions. With her vast knowledge of mathematics and her vision of what was possible for the future of machines, she is today known as the first programmer.
Lovelace was born in London on Dec. 10, 1815, the only legitimate child of Lord Byron. Little more than a month after her birth, her mother, fed up with her husband's scandalous behavior, left him, taking baby Ada with her; Ada never saw Byron again.
In an effort to keep Lovelace from becoming like her father, her mother hired tutors to educate her in science and math, an education not typical for women of the time. Lovelace was an apt pupil who studies with a variety of talented minds, including Mary Somerville, one of the first female members of the Royal Astronomical Society.
The Analytical Engine
At age 17, Lovelace met one of the most important people in her life. Charles Babbage was a renowned mathematician and inventor of the era. The friendship that formed between the two scientific minds influenced Lovelace to pursue studies in advanced mathematics at the University of London.
Today, Babbage is known as the father of the modern-day computer. His first major invention was the Difference Engine, a machine that would perform simple calculations. Lovelace was a witness to the creation of the machine and took interest in Babbage's work. After this invention, Babbage planned to build the Analytical Engine, which would be able to perform more advanced calculations.
Babbage traveled to Turin, Italy, and gave lectures about his machine. In the audience for one of these lectures was engineer Luigi Menabrea, who wrote a paper on the Analytical Engine in French. Lovelace was asked to translate the article, but the result was much more than a translation. Besides translating the original text, she added her own ideas about the workings of the machine, and her notes were three times longer than the original article. This translation was published in 1843 with her initials added to the final copy.
The material Lovelace added clearly described how codes could help the machine work with more than just numbers. She also put forth a theory about how the machine could use sets of repeated instructions, a concept known as looping by modern software developers. Her notes, although not put into practice in their time, proved to be possible with today's technologies.
Lovelace's work went largely unnoticed at the time, and later in her life, she would turn her attention toward creating mathematical approaches to gambling. These efforts failed, however, endangered her finances.
Ada Byron married William King in 1835, and three years later, he inherited the earldom of Lovelace, making her a countess. Her husband, with whom she had three children, supported her academic interests, and the couple befriended many leading thinkers of the era, including Charles Dickens and Michael Faraday.
However, Lovelace's health would become a concern, beginning in 1837 with a case of cholera. She would go on to suffer from persistent digestive issues and asthma, and doctors prescribed substances such as opium and laudanum as painkillers. The medications altered her personality and caused her to experience hallucinations and mood swings.
Lovelace died Nov. 27, 1852, from uterine cancer. She was buried in Nottingham, next to her father.
In the mid-1900s, Lovelace's work was rediscovered, and her notes were republished in a book by B.V. Bowden in 1953. Long after her death, Ada was finally recognized for her contributions to computer science. Among the honors her work has earned, the U.S. Defense Department named a programming language after her in 1980.
- Biography and Facts: Ada Lovelace: The daughter of Lord Byron, the famous poet, Lovelace went on to earn accolades of her own.
- What Ada Lovelace's Program Does: Lovelace wrote the first computer program for a machine that was never actually built.
- Ada Byron King, Lady Lovelace: Read a short article on Lovelace's life and ideas here.
- Ten Surprising Facts About Ada Lovelace: Creating the world's first computer program wasn't Lovelace's only accomplishment. At age 12, she conceptualized a flying machine.
- Ada Lovelace's Mathematical Papers: Lovelace's mathematical works and correspondence with her teacher show that she was much more than a poet's daughter.
- Ada Lovelace: Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron and a future countess, was steered toward learning about math from a young age.
- Ada Lovelace, the First Tech Visionary: From an early age, Lovelace was an innovator, and that propensity led to her pioneering work with Charles Babbage.
- Celebrating Ada Lovelace: Learn how modern scientists are celebrating the unique way that Lovelace merged mathematics with imagination.
- The Poetical Scientist, Ada Lovelace: Lovelace used creativity as well as her in-depth knowledge of mathematics to expand the understanding of what is possible with technology.
- Legacy of Ada Lovelace in Computer Science: In this article, you can read about Lovelace's life as well as the computer language named after her.
- Who Was Ada Lovelace? Learn more about Lovelace from the creators of Ada Lovelace Day, an annual celebration in her honor.
- Ada Lovelace: Lovelace's life, achievements, and historical contexts are explored in this podcast episode.