Science Heroes: Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace

In June 1833 a mother and daughter, while at a debutante ball in London, went to see a live demonstration at a party of what is now considered to be the prototype for the first mechanical computer. “The Difference Engine” created by Charles Babbage was nothing more than an automated calculator, but in the eyes of a then young Ada Byron, later known as the countess of Lovelace, this glorified calculator could be used to create a “thinking machine”. During that demonstration, Byron, only 17-years-old,  befriended Charles Babbage and they kept correspondence over the years.

1835 Watercolor portrait of a young Ada Byron, painted just a few years after seeing the “thinking machine” demonstration [Source].

About ten years later Babbage completed a more advanced blueprint of his machine that he called the Analytical Engine, and asked his dear friend, now titled Ada of Lovelace, to translate his work from French to English.  Published in 1843 in the Scientific Memoirs, the translated manuscript contained significantly more pages than the Babbage had written in the original manuscript [1]. As it turns out, Lady Lovelace included her own notes, doubling  the amount of pages in the final translation. Her supplementary notes are now historically known as the first computer program. Lady Lovelace had a vision of something unimaginable in the 1800s, a language and form of mathematics that could be used to automatically make decisions. She wasn’t satisfied with a fancy calculator, she created the language that made it possible for you to read this article on an electronic device of your choice. 

Left: Analytical Engine sketch by Charles Babbage [Source]. Right: Note G, the algorithm for how the analytical engine would compute was written by Lady Lovelace while translating Babbage’s manuscript from French to English [Source].

Sadly because it was the 1800’s, Ada Lovelace’s contributions were ignored by society until fairly recently. In the historical context where she was brought up, women weren’t allowed to be students at universities, they could only be taught by private tutors. If a woman wanted or needed to have a career, she could only do it with the expressed permission of her father or husband. Even then, if they worked, they were not in a position of power. What’s more, often when we speak of Lovelace’s life, we have a tendency to focus on the famous men associated with her life rather than who she was as a person. If you look up her name right now, it’s more likely you first learn she was the daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron (a man she never met), before you learn of her mathematical prowess and all of the love and dedication that she had for mathematics.

This portrait has Ada’s body facing to the left of the painting but her face looking front, in evening dress with Mantilla, holding fan
Watercolor portrait of Ada Lovelace attributed to the painter A E Chalon [Source].

Why is that then? Well, I leave the answer in the hands of her mentor Augustus De Morgan, a professor in Cambridge, who said if she were a man “[…] that they would have certainly made him an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first rate eminence.” It was not because her ideas were unattainable that she went on to be ignored by history. In fact, Babbage’s analytical engine itself wasn’t even built until well after he was dead. Her intellectual contributions were ignored because, as a woman, her ideas were viewed as less valuable as those from her male contemporaries. Additionally, Ada Lovelace suffered from multiple health issues that, coupled with her gender, made her seem less capable in the eyes of those with academic power. 

Despite these hurdles, Byron still managed to receive a substantial education that led to her mathematical ideas and achievements.  Yet, women weren’t allowed to go to university at that time, so how did she break into that environment? Ada Lovelace had a few advantages that not many women of the period were afforded.  For one, she was born to an affluent family with enough resources to hire the best tutors on everything including: arithmetic, grammar, spelling, reading, music, geography, drawing and French. Secondly, her mother, Lady Byron, a formidable woman in her own right, had a shared love of mathematics with her daughter. Noting her daughter’s fascination with the natural world and the mathematics used to describe it, she used the influence granted by her wealth to seek an education for her daughter. It was Lady Byron who moved them to London, a central location for intellectual progression and discovery, and pushed Lovelace to continue her education as an adult. It was also Lady Byron who took a young Lovelace to see Babbage’s demonstration of the Difference Engine, opening the doors for Lovelace’s claim to fame. While Ada Lovelace’s accomplishments were due to her own merit, it’s important to acknowledge the foundation that allowed her to achieve what others like her could never imagine.

For every one person from a marginalized identity that manages to be remembered by history, there are others from the same identity that paved the way and built the foundation for their greatness. Although Ada Lovelace is now acknowledged as the first programmer, while she lived, she never received the credit she deserved. Those close to her described Lovelace as having a creative mind and that her love for mathematics was proportional to her imagination. As a child she wrote a book with designs for flying machines based on the anatomy of birds, almost a full century before the airplane was invented. Her notebooks were filled with poetic usage of mathematics, not seeing the discipline as a cold language, but as another mode to express art.

That’s how I want to remember her. “Poetical Science” as she called it, was a beautiful lens that allowed her to see technology as an assistive tool for society and collaboration.


WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS SCIENCE HERO?

Have a Young Explorer that would benefit from knowing this Science Hero? Head over to the Sci Hero column on Animal Adventure Thursdays for printable Sci Hero Trading Cards featuring the Sci Hero’s “origin story” and super powers.

To read Ada Lovelace’s full article, check out this website.

Watch this video by Jessica Kellgren-Fozard “The First Computer Programmer was a Woman

WANT TO READ LOVELACE’S PUBLISHED WORK?

[1] Menabrea, L.F. & Lovelace, A.K. (1843). Sketch of the analytical engine invented by Charles Babbage, Esq. Scientific Memoirs,3, 666-731.

Boricua born and raised,  Sofía is a PhD student at UC Davis who specializes in running after bees and observing their bee-haviours. She believes that computational thinking is not just for computer scientists, and that many biological problems have computational solutions. Currently, she’s become especially obsessed with observing the origins of social organizations in insects.

Additional References: 

Christopher Hollings, Ursula Martin & Adrian Rice (2017) The early mathematical education of Ada Lovelace, BSHM Bulletin: Journal of the British Society for the History of Mathematics, 32:3, 221-234, DOI: 10.1080/17498430.2017.1325297  

Fuegi, J., & Francis, J. (2003). Lovelace & Babbage and the creation of the 1843 ‘notes’. IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, 25(4), 16–26. https://doi.org/10.1109/mahc.2003.1253887  

Ada Lovelace: Founder of Scientific Computing. (n.d.). Retrieved February 11, 2022, from https://www.sdsc.edu/ScienceWomen/lovelace.html  

Lovelace, A. (2009). Sketch of the analytical engine (1843). Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century. https://doi.org/10.1093/owc/9780199554652.003.0008   

[Edited by Karli Chudeau]

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