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The Enchantress of Number

Oil painting of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. From UK Government Art Collection. https://artcollection.culture.gov.uk/artwork/2172/

This blog was written in preparation for Ada Lovelace Day, which occurs every year on the second Tuesday of October and celebrates women in STEM.

Augusta Ada Byron, daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron and intellectual Lady Byron (whom Byron once named the “Princess of Parallelograms”), was born in 1815.  Shortly after Ada’s birth, she was whisked away by her mother to her maternal grandparents in northern England and was deemed a ward in chancery.  Lord Byron never did seek custody of Ada and left for the Continent within months of her birth.  After moving abroad, Byron seems to have taken an interest in Ada’s upbringing and even hoped that she would not be interested at all in poetry.  He stated in a letter that he hoped “the gods have made her anything save poetical—it is enough to have one such fool in the family.”  Lady Byron couldn’t have agreed more and kept her daughter within a strict regimen of scholarly subjects, such as foreign languages, music, and mathematics.  She also toured factories with her mother and this is most likely where her lifelong interest in inventions began.

Ada was very interested in mathematics, and whether this was because her mother was somewhat of a mathematician herself, is unknown.  In any event, she excelled at the subject.  This being early 19th-century England, there were no proper schools where girls could get an education, although most of the upper class did hire tutors to guide the education of their offspring.  The Byrons were no exception and Ada had several mathematics tutors and mentors with whom she regularly corresponded: Dr. William King (who also tutored her mother), William Frend, Augustus de Morgan, and eventually, Charles Babbage.  William Frend and Augustus de Morgan were mentors especially devoted to mathematics and were the authors of various mathematical texts.

A portion of Note G concerning the Bernoulli numbers, from Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs. Photographed by Nate Smith.

It was through Babbage that Ada reached her creative peak.  They met at one of his soirees in 1833 where she became fascinated by his Difference Engine, the first of his calculating machines.  This initial meeting grew into a mutually respectful relationship that explored mathematical concepts through regular correspondence and visits.  She tried to support his Analytical Engine (his latest and greatest calculating machine) through her societal connections, although the British government was not necessarily interested, due to the lackluster performance of the excessively public-funded Difference Engine.  To gain international interest in the Analytical Engine, Babbage gave lectures on it in Turin.  It was from this series of lectures that a paper was published in the Bibliothèque Universelle de Genève in 1842 by an attendee, Luigi Menabrea.  This paper, “A Sketch of the Analytical Engine,” was then translated into English by Ada and appeared in Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs in 1843.  But she didn’t just translate the paper, she also added extensive notes explaining and expanding various points of Menabrea’s paper that she believed needed further comment.  It is these Notes that have given her the moniker of the first programmer.  The Notes, which are titled alphabetically A through G, are impressive in their own right, each displaying Ada’s mental acuity and mathematical mastery.  However, it is Note G that has gained the most attention throughout the years.  Ada goes into detail on how the Bernoulli numbers could be computed by the Analytical Engine and by showing how this could be accomplished, she was in effect writing the first computer program.  As Baum states: “The program she devised for Babbage’s Analytical Engine was the first complex set of instructions written for a mechanism that would receive data (input), perform complicated operations (calculate), and conclude in results (output, including print).”

Unfortunately, Ada was ahead of her time.  She lived in an era where women were constrained and thought of as generally weaker than men.  She did what was expected by marrying Lord William King, Baron of Ockham (later Earl of Lovelace) and giving birth to three children, all of whom lived into adulthood.  But it took many years before her Notes were taken seriously and even longer before they were interpreted in the light of modern computer programming.  Today, it is easy to look back and see her genius. There has been renewed interest in her work and many have honored her memory in recent years.  In 1979 the U.S. Department of Defense named their computer programming language AdaAda Lovelace Day was begun in 2009 by Suw Charman-Anderson.

Items to check out for more information on Ada King, Countess of Lovelace:

And for a lighter tone, there is the imaginative and engrossing graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.

P.S. The nickname “Enchantress of Number” was given to Ada by Charles Babbage, written in a September 9, 1843 letter and is sometimes mistakenly said to be “Enchantress of Numbers.”

For information on more women in STEM, please refer to our Women Inventors and Discoverers research guide.

One Comment

  1. Dustin Hilliker
    October 9, 2019 at 10:01 pm

    Yo bro thanks for helping me get a good grade on my astronomy test bro I friggen appreciate you and hope your day exceeds your wildest expectations, your friends and family truly and unconditionally love you throughout the entirety of your life and you get that bread bro, “hugs not drugs, unless you can get both” -Socrates (on picking up hot chicks at starbucks with their pumpkin spice lattes laced with speed)

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