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 had also demonstrated an interest in mechanical
devices and was building detailed model boats.
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 immediately understand 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, Ada is today 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
would eventually 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
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 cervical 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.
Taken from "Programming and Problem Solving with Ada", by Dale, Weems, and
McCormick, Jones and Bartlett, 1997
John W. McCormick [log in to unmask]
Computer Science Department voice (319) 273-2618
University of Northern Iowa fax (319) 273-7123
Cedar Falls, IA 50614-0507