Ada Lovelace: The First Computer Programmer in 1843

by JoHarrington

She was the daughter of the poet Byron. But history knows Countess Lovelace much better as a mathematical genius and possibly the first computer hacker.

October 15th is Ada Lovelace Day. Never heard of her? Well you should!

If you learned that her annual day celebrates women in science and technology, then the clues are all there.

Countless Lovelace is the woman who envisioned the computer and wrote its first program.

She did that not during the Digital Revolution of the 20th century, but over 100 years before. It's taken that long for the world to catch up with her mathematical mind.

Portrait of Augusta Ada Byron Countess of Lovelace

Portrait of Augusta Ada Byron Countess of Lovelace

Countess Lovelace: The Mother of All Geeks

Dad was a world famous poet. Mum was a mathematically minded noblewoman. Guess who Ada took after.

Ada Lovelace sounds like the invention of a steampunk novelist. 

She's a Victorian countess with a technological bent; tinkering with computers before many of our great-great grandparents were even born.  Moreover, there's that glamor!  She was the daughter of the 'mad, bad and dangerous to know' poet Lord Byron.

So dangerous, in fact, that she barely met him.  Her mother fled back to her parental home while Ada was just a baby.  The courts ruled in her favor, despite the times, which would have ordinarily dictated that the father had custody of the child.

Ada was raised to not only detest her famous father, but to fear turning into him.  Lord Byron was declared insane, at least in her mother's parlor, and Ada was warned constantly to guard against her own inherited madness.

So she became a geek.  More than that, she's pretty much the spiritual Mother of All Geeks.  The US Military have a programming code named after her.  She was very, very real.

Steampunk Novels Starring Ada Lovelace

Did I say that the good countess sounded like a character in a Steampunk novel? Too late! It's already been done!

Ada Byron as a Child

Portrait of Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace

Ada's Mathematical Childhood

When Lord Byron met and married Annabella Milbanke, he called her the Princess of Parallelograms. 

In short, it was because she knew mathematics at a time when women of her class were supposed to just sit there and look pretty.  Annabella had more fire in her than that, and she really freaking hated him by the end of their marriage.

So much so that she tutored her daughter Ada, from a very early age, in all that could be learned in the field of mathematics.

It wasn't some enlightened program, imposed as a forerunner of the Women's Movement. It was there because math is logical.  Annabella figured that if her daughter concentrated on logical things, then she wouldn't turn out anything like her dad!

Up! Up! On my Flying Machine!

It wasn't just the dawn of computing which received the Ada treatment. She was messing with prototype aeroplanes too.

Born on December 10th, 1815, the Right Honorable Augusta Ada Byron was mostly famous for the scandal of her mother leaving her father. 

And, naturally, for the scandal of her father pretty much still breathing.

She had only been a month old, when Lady Byron had taken her to her grand-parents' home. She never saw her father again, though he did ask after her and ensured that her material needs were met.

No-one should assume at this point that Ada was close to her mother. Annabella called her 'it' and dumped her on her grandmother Judith Millbanke.

This was in addition to the procession of nannies, governesses and tutors.  Annabella hired only the best logical minds available.  This included Augustus De Morgan, the mathematician responsible for the eponymous De Morgan's Laws.

He was really impressed with his fledgling charge.  Even while still a young girl, Ada was referred to by De Morgan as 'an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence.'

Not only mathematics, but music too filled the young Ada's childhood. They were all staples of logic, but that isn't to say that her creative spirit was entirely crushed.  In fact, it took a particularly vivid imagination to picture the future as the infant countess did.

When she was just thirteen years old, Ada Lovelace set her mind to devising a flying machine.  She had it all mapped out, just awaiting the skill of an engineer to put it all together. 

Apparently no-one gave it a go. After all, she was only a child, and a girl at that!  Who could possibly conceive of such outlandish notions as an airplane actually working?

In fact few people seemed to do more than give lip service to her genius, until that chance encounter with Charles Babbage.

Biographies of Ada Lovelace

Intrigued by the story of Lady Ada? Buy these books to delve even deeper into the mind and inventions of this Victorian geek.

Charles Babbage and the World's First Mechanical Computer

He was aiming for a calculator. Something which would automate mathematical sums.

In 1812, three years before Ada was even born, Charles Babbage was studying mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge University.

He seems to have been more interested in the social clubs than his actual education (like many a student before and since).  He enthusiastically signed up for everything from the Ghost Club to the Extractors' Club.

The former investigated paranormal activity. The latter devised ways to spring friends from insane asylums, on the off chance that any of them ever got committed to one.  Always best to be prepared.

In addition, he founded some clubs of his own. The Analytical Society is the important one here.

Basically you had dozens of mathematics students pouring over logistical and numerical tables. They did this for fun.   As they were computing rows of figures, they called themselves computers.

Babbage looked over their ranks and, filled with ideas of the Victorian Industrial Age, wondered if it was possible to produce a machine which computed.  It would have the bonus of not making so many mistakes in its computations as his peers so regularly did.

It took him another decade to sift this vague musing from memory into reality.  Securing government funding, Babbage set about designing a steam powered machine, which would act as a mechanical computer.  (Now you can see why Lovelace and Babbage are so beloved amongst Steampunks.)

£17,000 and eleven years later, Babbage had plenty of designs - four of which would have actually worked - but he'd not produced a single thing to inspire the confidence of the Exchequer. The government cut his funding.

On the bright side, he'd now dallied long enough for Ada Lovelace to grow up!

Charles Babbage and The Countess

Charles Babbage was thirty years old in 1821, as was his close friend, John Herschel, and in English intellectual circles they were both regarded as brilliant mathematicians. On...

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Ada and the Difference Engine

The first geek conference was in slightly more refined surroundings than you might find today.

Lady Ada Byron was just seventeen, when she bumped into Charles Babbage at a high society party.

The older man was busy trying to get someone, anyone, to be interested in his Difference Engine. At least enough to fund his further development of it.  But there were no takers.

Which isn't to say that there wasn't any interest. There was one, though it is to be imagined that Babbage's first impression was dismay at being asked to explain his theory to a teenage girl.

What happened next stunned him into maintaining contact for the rest of his life.

The young Lady Ada understood what he was telling her.  He could up the ante, delving deeply into the mechanics, and she still kept pace.  There was no machine to show her, because he'd never actually built one.  But that didn't matter, she could picture all of its working parts in her head.

Utterly enchanted, Babbage took her address and they kept up their correspondence, discussing everything from his Difference Engine, through mathematics, logistics and everything else that occurred to them to discuss.

But Babbage wasn't husband material and, as a Victorian lady, Ada just had to nip away and do what was expected of her first.

Enter Augusta Ada, 8th Baroness King

It was an open secret that she was the power in that house. She ran everything and William did as he was told.

Ada married Lord William King in 1835.  It was a good match in terms of status and wealth, though there's no evidence that he shared her interests.

A year later, they had their first child.  Aptly named Byron, he was styled Viscount Oakham.  He later became the 12th Baron Wentworth, before dying aged only thirty.

In 1837, a second child was born.  Lady Annabella became the 15th Baroness Wentworth.

New titles weren't only reserved for the children.  Lord King was elevated to the Earldom of Lovelace in 1838. 

This is why Ada is usually remembered as Ada, Countess of Lovelace - and why the Byron link is often missed. Her full title was The Right Honourable the Countess of Lovelace.  We prefer Ada Lovelace.

A year later, the couple's third and final child was born.  Ralph Gordon eventually succeeded his father to the Earldom, following the untimely death of his elder brother.

Having spent the past four years getting married and giving birth thrice, it was time for Ada to get back to some computing.

Who Was Ada Lovelace? by Lucy Lethbridge

One of the better books about the Computer Wizard of Victorian England is actually aimed at children. It's really quite good!

The Scandalous Daughter of Lord Byron

Was Ada really as 'mad, bad and dangerous to know' as her infamous father? Probably not.

The correspondence between Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace had been on-going all this time. It had also widened to take in more of his circle of friends. 

Michael Faraday became a real fan of her mind. Mary Fairfax Somerville was a close friend and mentor.

Ideas flashed back and forth in letters, with all the intensity that e-mails or a Tweet might have today.  Geeks do love to hang out together, whatever the century.

But, of course, this was Victorian England and such close communication with gentlemen, who weren't her husband, gave rise to a lot of rumors and gossip in society circles.  Ada's story has been dogged with dozens of such scandals, particularly in light of her father's reputation.

Most of them were probably complete fabrications, based solely on her being too engrossed in mathematical conversations to notice that other person was male.  But one or two seem to have had some foundation. 

Something was going on with John Crosse from about 1844, but he burned all of their letters, so we'll never know.  The main consideration should be - do we even care?!  There are biographers, like Dorothy Stein, who see this as the main event.

I'm slightly more interested with what Ada got up to in the Analytical Engine.

Ada and the Analytical Engine

Charles Babbage may have lost his funding for computing machines, but he was making a killing in touring the continent to lecture on them!

He had also moved on from favoring his Difference Engine to focusing on another of his designs.  The Analytical Engine was an improved way of doing precisely what its predecessor should have done - compute logistical tables.

Amongst those hearing his talks about it was the future Prime Minister of Italy, Federico Luigi, Conte Menabrea. He was there in his capacity as an eminent mathematician in his own right, and he took notes.

Realizing that these notes could help explain his case back home, amongst a bewildered and apathetic establishment, Babbage took a copy.

Download a Kindle eBook About Ada Lovelace

He then asked Ada if she wouldn't mind awfully translating them into English, then perhaps adding a few annotations of her own.

In short, turning them from geek-speak into plain English for the masses. 

So she did.  It's what she wrote here which has been seized upon with such open glee by generations of computing aficionados ever since. 

Ada began by distancing the Analytical Engine from the Difference Engine.  No-one liked the latter.  They were bored by it and they didn't understand it, plus it had cost them way too much money.

Then she set about making a case for the value of the Analytical Engine.  First she explored the path of its actual remit.  She demonstrated how a mathematical algorithm could be used with the device in order to extract solutions to problems.

Algorithms and computing go together almost indivisibly now.  Back then it was a radical notion.  Ada Lovelace had just written the first ever computer program; and laid out a vision of what could be done.

As her example, she showed how a sequence of Bernoulli numbers could be sorted.  Babbage contributed by arranging the numbers himself.  But he'd made some errors, so Ada corrected him.  Does that make her the first computer debugger too?

But her grand finale really went off on a tangent.  Instead of focusing solely on mathematics, Ada envisaged that the punch cards used in the Analytical Engine could be programmed with anything. 

It was a piece of conceptual genius, which would eventually catapult us all into the Digital Age.  Though, in fairness, we can arrange Bernoulli numbers on a modern computer too.

Ada Lovelace: The Enchantress of Numbers

Ada Lovelace Merchandise

Show your appreciation of Countess Lovelace's vision with a neck-tie, button or mug!

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Updated: 07/14/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 11/01/2012

I've had a life-long love of Mary Shelley, so I'm with you in that fan-club! Yes, perhaps it's time for another re-read of Frankenstein.

whitemoss on 11/01/2012

What an amazing woman. I'd not really known much about her. I've just read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein ( I thought I knew the story but didn't)- another amazing woman from the same group!

JoHarrington on 10/23/2012

It was her surname too. :) Lord Byron's first name was George, with Noel and Gordon both originating as surnames/titled names. But she was Ada Byron before she was Ada Lovelace, hence naming her son after herself.

I was more shocked that Ada called her daughter Annabella. I thought that she and her mother didn't get on either!

Jasmine on 10/23/2012

I'm surprised that Ada named her first child Byron. Great story about an extraordinary woman!

JoHarrington on 10/20/2012

I've just named my new computer Ada after her. :) Yes, she was, though I do wonder how much sooner we would have had computing, if people had followed through. The machine wasn't built until long after she'd died.

It's intriguing to imagine what would have happened if it was though. Computing would have come in 1843, close to how we know it, but the internet wouldn't have been decentralized.

JoHarrington on 10/19/2012

Then I'll have to add a few more. :)

JoHarrington on 10/18/2012

You are very welcome. :)

Kate on 10/18/2012

Thanks for a fascinating rebalance of HIS tory

JoHarrington on 10/18/2012

She totally blew their minds; and is still blowing ours. But yes, I can see your point. I might do a follow up article about precisely what she did write.

Liam on 10/18/2012

One of the major issues is that she wrote about programming before people began to create conventions, but I am glad you looked over it

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