At the age of 14, Ada Lovelace (née Byron) wrote a book on flying machines, called Flyology, and constructed a pair of mechanical wings to help her take off. This may not sound terrifically spectacular today but it happened 3/4s of a century before the Wright Brothers managed to coax Kitty Hawk into the air. And that wasn’t even her most important intellectual legacy!
The privileged daughter of a famed British poet and a countess, the wife of an Earl, and mother of three children, she also invented what we now know as the algorithm.
If Alan Turing was the father of computing, Ada Lovelace was most certainly its granny.
Ada Byron was born in 1815. She never knew her famous literary father for her parents separated when she was just a baby and Lord Byron left England never to return. Afraid her only daughter would develop his notoriously "poetic" temperament,* Lady Byron raised Ada on a healthy diet of mathematics.
She turned out to be a rare female genius in a man's world. One of her teachers, a pioneer in the early development of symbolic logic, taught her mathematics by correspondence as women in Victorian England were forbidden from attending school with men. He saw her great potential, but he also worried that she might injure herself, believing a woman’s body could not cope if the brain were overtaxed!
On June 5, 1833, Ada attended an event that would change the course of her life – and ours: a demonstration by Cambridge professor Charles Babbage of his latest invention. Most stared incomprehensively at the pen and paper descriptions of his “analytical engine,” which used a processing unit he called “the mill” and an expandable memory device, dubbed “the store,” that could theoretically carry out mathematical computations faster than any human. Among those in attendance, only Ada understood the power of Babbage’s proposition. She was just 18; he was 42. But they were intellectual equals.
Ada immediately asked to study his plans. One woman declared, “Babbage and not Byron should have been her father!”
The two became lifelong friends. Babbage called Ada, “the enchantress of numbers.” Some years later he asked her to help him translate a manuscript by the Italian Luigi Menabrea, who'd written about Babbage’s machine and how it worked. Babbage wanted to know what Menabrea said. But Ada went far beyond the language translation. She added an addendum three times longer Menabrea's original that illustrated the internal thinking of the analytical engine. Her work predicted the computational process now known as "looping" – a series of repeatable instructions she understood could be comprehended by Babbage's machine.
People now say this was history’s first algorithm. Without it, Babbage’s ideas might have drifted longer in obscurity. But Ada’s understanding of them, and her ability to translate them for public consumption, made it possible for people in the know to appreciate both Babbage’s, and her, mathematical genius.
Ada spent much of the rest of her life anticipating what the analytical engine might one day be able to do: write beautiful music, draw pictures, turn real things into numbers that the engine could crunch and analyze. She also discussed how one might create codes for the analytical engine so that it could process letters and symbols as well as numbers.
Without intending it, Ada had invented much of the basis of today’s modern computer. Though her work was published in an English scientific journal in 1843, her breakthrough received little attention while she was alive. And, sadly, she did not live long.
Ada died of cancer at 36. Her battle with the disease lasted over a year and brought her tremendous pain. Her friend Charles Dickens read to Ada on her deathbed. Another old friend, Florence Nightingale, wrote: “They said she could not possibly have lived so long, were it not for the tremendous vitality of the brain, that would not die.”
The extent of Ada Byron Lovelace’s discoveries were not fully realized for another century. In the 1950s the English scientist B. V. Bowden brought Ada's work to light in his book Faster than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines. That's when Ada Lovelace became a scientific celebrity.
Today, Ada Lovelace lives on as a symbol of and hero for women in STEM fields. There are many different initiatives and awards named after her, including the computer language "Ada," developed by the US Defense Department. The girl who dreamed of flying achieved immortality in death as one of the world's greatest mathematicians. She’s the hero of anyone who likes to play video games or listen to music on an mp3 player.
*Byron had famously erratic moods, that some now recognize as bipolar disorder.