Ada Lovelace: Victorian computing visionary

by Suw Charman-Anderson

The idea that the 1840s saw the birth of computer science as we know it today may seem like a preposterous one, but long before the Bombe, the Colossus or the Harvard Mark I, long before any computer was actually built, came a remarkable woman whose understanding of computing remained unparalleled and unappreciated for 100 years. Brought up in an era when women were routinely denied education, she saw further into the future than any of her male counterparts, and her work influenced the thinking of one of World War II’s greatest minds.

Born The Honourable Augusta Ada Byron, the woman we know of today as Ada Lovelace began her life in a turbulent household. She was the only legitimate daughter of George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron and Anne Isabella Milbanke, 11th Baroness Wentworth, or Annabella as she called herself. Their short marriage imploded just a month after Ada was born.

Annabella was an incredibly intelligent woman who was educated by former Cambridge University professors in classical literature, philosophy, science and maths. She particularly enjoyed maths and Byron called her his “princess of parallelograms”. But Annabella was also a stiff, religious woman with strict morals, and was sometimes described as cold and prim.

Byron, on the other hand, was the original cad. He was “mad, bad and dangerous to know” according to Lady Caroline Lamb, Annabella’s cousin, who had an affair with Byron before his marriage. Annabella probably should have taken this as the warning it was — Lamb never really got over her break-up with Byron — but perhaps she instead took it as a challenge. Maybe she saw Byron as a soul that needed saving from his lascivious and immoral ways. Whatever her motivations, Annabella and Byron wed in January 1815 and Ada was born on December 10 that same year.

The marriage, however, wasn’t a happy one. Byron was moody, drank too much and behaved erratically, having at least one affair with a London chorus girl called Susan Boyce. There were rumours of violence and abuse. And then the financial troubles hit. Byron suggested that Annabella remove herself to her parents’ estate at Kirkby Mallory, and take Ada with her, whilst he sorted things out.

Worried that he had succumbed to madness, Annabella engaged a physician to visit the family and secretly assess Byron’s state of mind. The physician recommended that she do as Byron wished, and in January 1816 the couple separated. Although their separation began amicably enough, it soon turned acrimonious and Byron left England for Italy to escape a burgeoning sexual scandal. Ada never met her father, and he died when she was eight years old.

Young Ada

Parenting styles were different in the early 19th century, and Annabella wasn’t the doting mother that we might these days assume she should be. Indeed, Ada was brought up mostly by her grandmother, Judith, The Honourable Lady Milbanke. Annabella didn’t seem to show much affection for her daughter, referring to Ada as ‘it’ in one letter to her mother:

“I talk to it for your satisfaction, not my own, and shall be very glad when you have it

under your own.”

Judith died when Ada was six, and the young girl was then looked after by a series of nannies, a common practice at the time, and educated by tutors that her mother appointed.

Ada loved machines. She spent hours poring over diagrams of new inventions and eagerly devouring any new periodical journals she could get her hands on. She began to design boats and steam-powered flying machines for her own amusement.

This unusual preoccupation was encouraged by Annabella, who ensured that Ada was taught by some of the very finest minds in England. Having enjoyed a first class education herself, Annabella was determined that Ada should have the same, arranging for a series of teachers to give Ada a solid grounding in science and mathematics.

Her motivation wasn’t entirely focused on expanding Ada’s mind, however: Annabella was terrified that Ada might have inherited the madness of her father. She saw the close study of mathematics and science as a way to instil some mental discipline and, hopefully, drive out any demons that might otherwise plague Ada.

Indeed, in later life, Ada herself said that her study of mathematics helped with the mental instabilities that she does indeed seem to have interited from her father. She wrote to her husband that “nothing but a very close and intense application to subjects of a scientific nature now seems at all to keep my imagination from running wild, or to stop the void which seems to be left in my mind.” However, Ada also wrote to her tutor De Morgan’s wife that she had determined that “too much mathematics” had caused her to have a breakdown, so her internal jury was obviously out on maths’ effectiveness for the control of her mental problems.

That tutor, Augustus De Morgan, was one of Ada’s most important teachers. He was a mathematician at the forefront of the emerging field of symbolic logic. It was, without doubt, De Morgan who encouraged Ada to further study mathematics, and she impressed him mightily with her capabilities. Had Ada been a man, he said, she would have had the potential to become “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence”.

But De Morgan worried that her focus on maths was damaging her health. Ada had been a sickly child, suffering headaches that affected her vision from around age eight. Then in 1829, when she was 13, she caught the measles which left her paralysed and confined to bed for a year. She did recover, but it was a slow, arduous journey to the point where, in 1831, she could walk again, on crutches.

De Morgan worried that her health would suffer further if she studied too hard. He said of her maths problems that, “the very great tension of mind which they require is beyond the strength of a woman’s physical power of application.”

But Ada did apply herself and she did conquer her maths problems.

Another of Ada’s tutors was Mary Somerville, the Scottish astronomer and mathematician. Mary had become famous in 1831 when she published The Mechanism of the Heavens. a translation of the five volume M


Category: Computers

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