An Early Computer Programmer – Ada Byron

Lord Bryon’s only child, Ada, was a mathematics whiz and one of the first computer programmers.

Born 1815, the only child of Lord Byron, Ada Byron grew up in a time when women were not encouraged to pursue education. Ada was an exception. Perhaps because there were no other children who needed attention, her mother and her mother’s friends spent a great deal of time fostering Ada’s intellectual interests, and she developed into one of the first computer programmers.

Ada was born less than a year after the marriage of her mother, Annabella Milbanke, to Lord Byron, the illustrious poet. Although there are two different versions of how it happened, it is clear that shortly after the birth, Lord and Lady Byron separated and Ada remained with her mother. After this separation, Lord Byron had very little to do with the raising of his daughter, although he did ask about her on his deathbed eight years later.

In addition to her mother’s encouragement, Ada was influenced by another female mathematician, Mary Somerville, as well as Augustus DeMorgan, another well-known mathematician. Women were not encouraged to expand their minds during this time, but Ada’s abilities were recognized early and were developed by family and friends. When she was 19, Ada married William, Lord King who later became Earl of Lovelace. Throughout their time together (although William was 10 years her elder, he outlived her by 40 years), he seems to have supported her work. In one letter, she mentions that her husband is occupied just then “inking over” a paper she had written in pencil. This marriage produced three children — two sons and a daughter.

Mary Somerville was the first to introduce Ada to Charles Babbage. When she was 18, Ada made a trip to Babbage’s London studio and there got her first glimpse of his Difference Engine, a machine that could add numbers. Unlike many who viewed his mechanical wonder, Ada understood how it worked and how important it could be in making calculations. In 1834 Ada was attending a dinner hosted by Mary Somerville when she heard Babbage talk about a new calculating machine — the Analytical Engine. Unlike the Difference Engine, Babbage conceived of the Analytical Engine as a calculating machine that could not only foresee but act on that foresight. Although this machine was never actually built, Babbage envisioned feeding it hole punch cards (much like the cards used in early computers) and having it manipulate equations based on the holes punched in the cards. Three years later, in 1836, Ada wrote her first letter to Babbage. She was looking for a teacher to help her continue her mathematical education. Lady Lovelace continued her correspondence with Babbage for 18 years, her tone going from that of an eager young student to one of a confident peer.

Ada’s “big” chance to prove herself came in 1842. An Italian mathematician, who was also the ambassador to France, delivered a paper on Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Ada proposed that she translate the paper from French. After reading her translation Babbage realized Ada’s grasp of the material was exceptional and suggested that she add her own notes. These notes turned out to be three times the length of the original article. Babbage was impressed enough that he tried to persuade Ada to publish her notes as an original article. She refused, saying that she had made a commitment to the publishers and could not renege on the agreement. Ada and Babbage had numerous disagreements as the deadline for publication approached — mostly, it seems, due to Babbage’s forgetfulness. He would misplace papers or not make changes Ada had indicated. These problems grew so great that after publication of the article, the two of them agreed to have an arbitrator make final decisions if future disagreements arose. Finally, the article was published in 1843. At that time, women, especially noble women, did not write and publish papers. This presented Ada with a problem — how to sign her paper. She decided to publish it under “A.A.L.”, something that her close friends would recognize but not the general public. Her identity was kept secret for 30 years.

Ada Lovelace died in 1852 at the age of 36 (the same age as her father). She was buried next to Lord Byron in England. More than possibly even Babbage, Ada saw both the promise and the concerns that the computer held. In her notes, she saw in the Analytical Engine the possibility for musical composition, graphics and both practical and scientific uses. She also understood its limitations,”The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis, but it has no power of anticipating any analytical revelations or truths. Its province is to assist us in making available what we are already acquainted with.”* After her death, Ada was basically forgotten, at least for a while. Her contributions were finally recognized in 1979 when the Department of Defense named one of their programming languages Ada, after her.

Ada excelled in a field and at a time where most women were limited to one role — wife and mother. Along the way, strong women like her mother and Mary Somerville inspired her. Ada’s own faith in her abilities grew until she considered herself to be an equal of Charles Babbage. As an historical figure, she aptly demonstrates what is possible when anyone is allowed to follow his/her dream.