The Enchantress of Numbers


“A new, a vast and powerful language is developed for the future use of analysis.”

A.A.L., 1843

The history of modern computing is filled with stories and Hollywood films about geniuses such as Alan Turing and enterprising pairs like the two Steves of Apple, but a century before any of these famous inventors were born, Ada Lovelace was burning the midnight oil to write the first ever computer program.

In a time when women were rarely given opportunities for a scientific education, Ada had the advantage of being born into an upper class family and her mother arranged for first class education for her daughter. Demonstrating a strong aptitude for mathematics early on, Ada subsequently developed an interest in machines, designing a steam powered flying machine at the age of twelve, 15 years before a similar design was patented by two engineers many years her senior. This interest in machines and mathematics was encouraged by her mother, who was also concerned that Ada might develop the madness exhibited by her father, Lord Byron, if she did not have an appropriate outlet or distraction. Byron left his family when Ada was one month old and died when she was eight; despite having an interest in her father’s poetry and life, Ada never saw him after he left.

Ada’s health was often poor, but she continued to explore mathematics and machines and was encouraged by her tutors, even if they worried sometimes that she studied too hard or thought certain mathematical problems might be beyond her;

“The very great tension of mind which they [maths problems] require is beyond the strength of a woman’s physical power of application.” – Augustus De Morgan (one of Ada’s tutors)

Ada proved him wrong.

Ada met Charles Babbage, an early pioneer of computing, in 1833, when she was 17 years old. They were introduced by the Scottish astronomer and mathematician Mary Somerville, Ada’s tutor and friend. Ada was fascinated by Babbage’s machines and worked with him on the “analytical engine”, a design for the first general purpose computer. The two became friends and Ada continued to work with Babbage on the engine. In 1842, she translated notes on one of Babbage’s lectures that were written by the Italian engineer Luigi Menabrea, expanding and correcting the document as she translated. Her additional notes on the lecture were three times longer than Menabrea’s original and in them Ada penned several computer programmes; the notes were published in Scientific Memoirs under her initials AAL in 1843 and are thought to be the first ever computer programs to be published.

Although the analytical engine was never built due to a lack of funding, the designs and work that Lovelace and Babbage pioneered influenced scientists and engineers of the 20th Century including Alan Turing, who used Lovelace’s notes when he was working at Bletchley Park in World War II. The US Department of Defense named the computer language, Ada, after Lovelace in 1980.

Ada Lovelace’s life was tragically cut short at the age of 36 when she died of cancer, but her legacy and place in history as the first programmer is now celebrated on Ada Lovelace day, an international event that celebrates the achievements of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. This year, Ada Lovelace Day (#ALD2018) will be on 9th October and a range of events will be held all over the world. At the University of Edinburgh there will be short talks, an edit-a-thon, a data hackathon, an introduction to supercomputing and Women in STEM inspired cake decorating. If you would like to attend then there are further details here.


Further reading

Charman-Anderson, S (2015) A Passion For Science: Tales of Discovery and Invention. FindingAda, 2nd edition. Amazon

Fuegi, J, Francis, J, “Lovelace & Babbage and the creation of the 1843 ‘notes’”, Annals of the History of Computing, IEEE, vol.25, no.4, pp.16-26, Oct.-Dec. 2003. Link

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