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Who Was Ada Lovelace?

The short answer: Ada Lovelace was a visionary, a woman ahead of her time.

By A Little Birdie | Posted on October 9, 2018 in Coding


Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace.

Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace.
GAC and Science Museum Group

If you’ve been following along with us on Instagram, you may already be aware of our admiration for Ada, aka Augusta Ada King-Noel, aka the Countess of Lovelace. We even held a giveaway a little while back for a great children’s book by Diane Stanley and illustrated by Jessie Hartland that tells the story of her life in child-friendly prose.

So, why the kerfuffle? Who was Ada? Well, she’s often lauded as the world’s first programmer. Based on the available evidence, however, the person who should properly bear that title may in fact be her good friend and mathematician, Charles Babbage. That said, what we think is most amazing about Ada, has nothing to do with how you define what constitutes a computer program, and who technically wrote the first lines of code, but rather her foresight, her ability to envision what a computer (in her day, an “analytical engine”) could become: that numbers and calculations were in fact only the beginning, that those numbers could be translated into so much more. In this respect, evidence suggests that she was indeed a genuine visionary and truly unique - perhaps the first person in the world to see the potential that computers held (and still hold today). For example, she proposed that someday an analytical engine might be used to compose music:

“Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”
Ada Lovelace in Notes by the Translator, as appended to Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage by L.F. Menabrea

As some of you may know, today happens to be Ada Lovelace Day. For that reason (and because we’re fans!), we thought it would be a timely moment to share a few trivia highlights for folks previously unfamiliar with this amazing lady:

  • Ada was the only legitimate child of Lady Wentworth (aka Anne Isabella “Annabella” Milbanke), and the poet Lord Byron (aka George Gordon Byron). Thanks to a host of headline-making scandals perpetrated by her father, as well as her parents’ subsequent separation, Ada was famous from birth.

  • As a child, Ada was fascinated by flying, even fantasizing about building her own flying machine. She requested books from her mother detailing the anatomy of birds so she could understand their wing structure. She also took it upon herself to study the wings of a dead crow in her pursuit of aviation-related knowledge and, at one point, proposed to build wings for herself in direct proportion size-wise to those of birds.1

  • Ada’s childhood education included arithmetic and basic math. At around age 12, her mother, Lady Byron, hired a dedicated math tutor for her at a cost of £300 per year (roughly equivalent to £30,000 today, or about $40,000). This would have been quite unusual for a young girl’s education at that time. At that point, however, Ada had already begun teaching herself geometry from a book that Ada “liked particularly,” according to her mother.2

Ada as a child, circa 1822.

Ada as a child, circa 1822.
Somerville College | University of Oxford

  • Even at age eighteen, Ada seemed to prefer the company of scientists and thinkers to that of fashionable society. Her mother wrote in a letter, “Ada was more pleased with a party she was at on Wednesday than with any assemblage in the grand monde. She met there a few scientific people - amongst them Babbage with whom she was delighted.”3 It was a meeting of minds; although almost 24 years her senior, Babbage would ultimately become one of Ada’s closest friends. Ada’s circle of friends eventually included the likes of Mary Somerville, Charles Dickens and Michael Faraday.

  • Ada translated Luigi Federico Menabrea’s paper on Babbage’s engine, appending her own notes (far longer than the article itself), discussing the machine’s potential. It is those notes for which Ada is most well known. Her translation of Menabrea’s work and her notes were published in Scientific Memoirs in 1843, not under her full name but under only her initials, “AAL.”

  • Ada died in 1851 of uterine cancer. She was only 36 years old, the same age as her famous father, Lord Byron, when he died.

1. Essinger, 52-55. 2. Essinger, 36 and 55. 3. Essinger, 80-81.

If these tidbits of trivia pique your interest further and you would like to learn more, we recommend checking out the following sources we drew upon when writing this post:

Tags: artifical intelligence, coders, coding, computers, computer science, history, history of computing, women who code

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