On December 10, 1815, Anna Isabella (Annabella) Byron, whose husband was
Lord Byron, gave birth to a daughter, Augusta Ada. Ada's father was a
romantic poet whose fame derived not only from his works but also from his
wild and scandalous behavior. His marriage to Annabella was strained from
the beginning, and Annabella left Byron just a little more than a month
after Ada was born. By April of that year, Annabella and Byron signed
separation papers, and Byron left England, never to return.
Byron's writings show that he greatly regretted that he was unable to see
his daughter. In one poem, for example, he wrote of Ada,
I see thee not. I hear thee not.
But none can be so rapt in thee.
Byron died in Greece at the age of 36, and one of the last things he said was,
Oh my poor dear child! My dear Ada! My God, could I but have seen her!
Meanwhile, Annabella, who was eventually to become a baroness in her own
right, and who was herself educated as both a mathematician and a poet,
carried on with Ada's upbringing and education. Annabella gave Ada her
first instruction in mathematics, but it soon became clear that Ada's gift
for the subject was such that it required more extensive tutoring. Ada
received further training in mathematics from Augustus DeMorgan, who is
today famous for one of the basic theorems of Boolean algebra, which forms
the basis for modern computers. By the age of eight, Ada also had
demonstrated an interest in mechanical devices and was building detailed
When she was 18, Ada visited the Mechanics Institute to hear Dr. Dionysius
Lardner's lectures on the "difference engine," a mechanical calculating
machine being built by Charles Babbage. She became so interested in the
device that she arranged to be introduced to Babbage. It was said that,
upon seeing Babbage's machine, Ada was the only person in the room to
understand immediately how it worked and to appreciate its significance.
Ada and Babbage became good friends and she worked with him for the rest of
her life, helping to document his designs, translating writings about his
work, and developing programs to be used on his machines. Unfortunately,
Babbage never completed construction of any of his designs. Even so, today
Ada is recognized as being the first computer programmer in history. That
title, however, does not do full justice to her genius.
Around the time that Babbage met Ada, he began the design for an even more
ambitious machine called the "analytical engine," which we now recognize
was the first programmable computer. Ada instantly grasped the
implications of the device and foresaw its application in ways that even
Babbage did not imagine. Ada believed that mathematics eventually would
develop into a system of symbols that could be used to represent anything
in the universe. From her notes, it is clear that Ada saw that the
analytical engine could go beyond arithmetic computations and become a
general manipulator of symbols, and thus it would be capable of almost
anything. She even suggested that such a device could eventually be
programmed with rules of harmony and composition so that it could produce
"scientific" music. In effect, Ada foresaw the field of artificial
intelligence over 150 years ago.
In 1842, Babbage went to Turin, Italy, and gave a series of lectures on his
analytical engine. One of the attendees was Luigi Menabrea, who was so
impressed that he wrote an account of Babbage's lectures. At age 27, Ada
decided to translate the account into English, with the intent to add a few
of her own notes about the machine. In the end, her notes were twice as
long as the original material, and the document, "The Sketch of the
Analytical Engine," became the definitive work on the subject.
It is obvious from Ada's letters that her "notes" were entirely her own and
that Babbage was acting as a sometimes unappreciated editor. At one point,
Ada wrote to him,
I am much annoyed at your having altered my Note. You know I am always
willing to make any required alterations myself, but that I cannot endure
another person to meddle with my sentences.
Ada gained the title Countess of Lovelace when she married Lord William
Lovelace. The couple had three children, but Ada was so consumed by her
love of mathematics that she left their upbringing to her mother. For a
woman of that day, such behavior was considered almost as scandalous as
some of her father's exploits, but her husband was actually quite
supportive of her work.
In 1852, Ada died from cancer. Sadly, if she had lived just one year
longer, she would have witnessed the unveiling of a working difference
engine built from one of Babbage's designs by George and Edward Scheutz in
Sweden. Like her father, Ada lived only until she was 36, and, even though
they led much different lives, she undoubtedly admired Byron and took
inspiration from his unconventional and rebellious nature. At the end, Ada
asked to be buried beside him at the family's estate.
From Chapter 2 of Programming and Problem Solving with Ada 95 by
Nell Dale, Chip Weems, and John McCormick, Jones and Bartlett, 2000
John W. McCormick [log in to unmask]
Computer Science Department [log in to unmask]
University of Northern Iowa voice (319) 273-6056
Cedar Falls, IA 50614-0507 fax (319) 273-7123