Heroes of Technology: Ada Lovelace
A talented mathematician and a pioneering computer engineer
The daughter of a romantic poet and occasional freedom fighter, Ada Lovelace had a famous but absent father. She never knew Lord Byron, as just weeks after her birth in 1815, he divorced her mother Isabella Milbanke Byron and left to fight in the Greek War of Independence. In an effort to prevent Ada from developing her father’s unpredictable temperament, Isabella decided that her daughter should devote her life to study, especially mathematics and engineering. Unknowingly, her mother had set Ada on the path to becoming one of the finest mathematic minds of the 19th century.
Ada studied hard, undeterred by a sickly youth and the fact that society did not encourage women pursuing interests in science. Her life changed when she met inventor Charles Babbage at a party. As he demonstrated a working section of his difference engine (a mechanical calculator), Ada was taken in by how it worked and wanted to know more. Impressed by the 17-year-old’s obvious passion, the polymath became her mentor. She embraced his vision of creating a ‘thinking machine’ that could solve mathematical problems and then print the results.
A finished difference engine was never made due to an impatient British Government pulling the funding. Babbage moved on to work on an analytical engine that would be able to handle even more complex calculations, using punched instruction cards and stored numbers in a memory unit. Ada married in 1835 and became a mother, but she continued to take an active interest in study, socialising in intellectual circles with the likes of Charles Dickens and Michael Faraday.
Ada stayed in contact with Babbage, who in 1837 had proposed a new machine, the analytical engine. In 1843, Ada was asked to translate a French text written by engineer (and future Italian Prime Minister) Luigi Menabrea about Babbage’s new design. After completing the translation, Ada was encouraged by Babbage to write her own notes on his work.
After nine months of hard work, Ada presented Babbage with a detailed list of notes that was three-times longer than the original article. In her calculations, Ada wrote what are considered the first ever computer algorithms to be used in a new type of machine. She essentially provided the first ideas for computer programming in what was a groundbreaking proposal on the potential of computers.
“she embraced Babbage’s vision of creating a ‘thinking machine’ that could solve mathematical problems and print the results”
Ada’s contributions were a century ahead of their time. She died of cancer aged only 36 and her work was largely consigned to history until the 1950s when her notes were republished. Since then, the first Countess of Lovelace has received posthumous awards, and in 1979 the US Department of Defence named a programming language ‘Ada’ in her honour.
Five things to know about…
1.She was a countess
Ada was born into the aristocracy and her full name was Augusta Ada Byron. She became the Countess of Lovelace after she married William King-Noel, the first Earl of Lovelace, in 1835.
2.There’s an Ada Lovelace Day
Celebrated annually on the second Tuesday of October since 2009, Ada Lovelace Day is held to acknowledge the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
3.Her mother taught her self-control
Ada’s mother did not want her daughter to turn out like her temperamental father. She forced Ada to lie still for long periods as she thought it would help with her self-control.
4.She was a gambler
In her later life, Ada took up gambling and lost much of her fortune this way. She tried to develop mathematical strategies to help her win.
5.She designed a flying machine
In 1828, when she was just 13, Ada created designs for wings so humans could fly. She even wrote and illustrated a book on her project, called Flyology.
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