The Coding Countess
How the mathematician Ada Lovelace became the world’s first computer programmer… before computers even existed.
Ada Lovelace was insane. Or, at least, that’s what a few dastardly discreditors would have you believe. One historian even wrote, “it is no exaggeration to say that she was a manic depressive with the most amazing delusions about her own talents.” But as we’ve seen with another great thinker or two, a little madness doesn’t preclude anyone from greatness. A remarkable mind of the Victorian age, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (popularly known as Ada Lovelace) was a visionary mathematician, writer, and programmer.
Born in 1815, Lovelace was fathered by none other than Lord Byron, one of the greatest English poets of all time, and by all accounts, a lascivious and emotionally unstable man. Lovelace’s mother, Baroness Anne Byron, was just the opposite. Mathematically gifted and morally disciplined, Lady Byron left her wayward husband when Lovelace was only 8 months old and proceeded to do everything in her power to steer her daughter away from fanciful poetic things and towards rational pursuits like math and science. From a young age, Lovelace’s interest in mathematics and machines was keenly cultivated by a series of first class tutors.
In 1833, at the age of 17, Lovelace made her social debut on the London party scene and met Charles Babbage, the inventor of a mechanical computer able to make complex mathematical calculations. The two struck up a lifelong friendship and a fascinating correspondence about mathematics and the machine’s potential. Eight years later, Lovelace offered to translate an Italian paper on Babbage’s latest project, a theoretical “Analytical Engine” even more powerful than his previous machine.
Lovelace added her own notes to the translation, which ran nearly three times as long as the original text. More so than her letters, “Notes from the Translator” is seen as Lovelace’s greatest contribution to computing. In the Notes, Lovelace explains better than Babbage himself how the un-built Analytical Engine would function. She wrote that, similarly to a Jacquard loom, the device would use punch cards to perform a series of operations, weaving calculated numerical sequences.
In her final note—”Note G”—Lovelace outlined a detailed plan for using punch cards to make the machine calculate a set of Bernoulli numbers, rational numbers significant in mathematical theory. Although Babbage and his assistants had previously sketched out a few of their own “programs” for the Analytical Engine, Lovelace’s was the most elaborate and complete. “Note G” is widely considered to be the world’s first true computer program and Lovelace, the first programmer.
Although Babbage’s Analytical Engine was never built, Lovelace’s expert insights into its operation and vast future potential were nothing short of visionary. Lovelace saw how the machine could be applied to non-numerical functions such as the creation of music. And she essentially invented the science of computing, writing:“A new, a vast, and a powerful language is developed for the future use of analysis, in which to wield its truths so that these may become of more speedy and accurate practical application for the purposes of mankind than the means hitherto in our possession have rendered possible. Thus not only the mental and the material, but the theoretical and the practical in the mathematical world, are brought into more intimate and effective connection with each other.”
Lovelace died at the age of 36, just a few years after the publication of “Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator.” But nearly a century later, these notes would be among the significant catalysts for Alan Turing‘s conception of modern computing (Turing would also be called crazy in his day). The ideas of Ada Lovelace were undoubtedly before her time, but they forever shaped the technological landscape.
Got you hooked? Here’s more:
The fascinating story of Ada Lovelace
A brief stop-motion jaunt through Lovelace’s life
Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator
Ada Lovelace’s seminal contribution to computing as it originally appeared in Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs
Ada Lovelace Day, October 14
An international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths.