Who Invented the Computer? Ada Lovelace

Who Invented the Computer? This is the second installment in our ongoing series.

Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, was an early computer pioneer.

In 1815, in the town of Durham, England, a rather strange pairing occurred. In what was certainly a triumph of hope over experience, the renowned British poet George Gordon Byron (yes, Lord Byron) was tying the knot for the fourth time. His bride was Anne Isabella Milbanke, the 11th Baroness Wentworth.

This was definitely an “opposites attract” coupling. The Baroness was a highly educated and deeply religious mathematician; Byron was an agnostic and thoroughly amoral poet. He was also a notorious womanizer.

Filled with acrimony, the marriage lasted a little more than one year. Byron suspected the Baroness of spying on him, and she suspected him of being insane. (Poets. What are you gonna do?) Shortly following the occasion of their one-year anniversary, weary of Byron’s philandering ways and increasingly odd behaviors, the Baroness sent him packing.

Their brief union did, however, produce an amazing child, Augusta Ada King, who would come to be called by her middle name. Young Ada never met her famous father, something which the Baroness took pains to ensure. Concerned that Ada might develop some of same the mental issues the afflicter her famous father, Lady Milbanke took steps to prevent any familial bonds from developing.

(In one notable instance, she hung a curtain over a full-size painting of Lord Byron and forbade Ada from ever looking at it. Ada is reported to have passed her 20th birthday before finally venturing a peek at the forbidden portrait.)

A beautiful mind

When it came to mathematics and science, Ada was a chip off her mum’s block. Very early one she proved an apt student and Lady Milbanke hired the best tutors to oversee Ada’s education. One tutor was the renowned mathematician Augustus De Morgan. De Morgan initially declined to take her on, believing that women were incapable of excelling at mathematics.

In a letter to the Baroness, De Morgan wrote, “The great tension of mind required is beyond the strength of a woman’s physical power of application.” Ada quickly proved she was more than strong enough. It was another tutor however, Scottish science writer Mary Somerville, who helped open the door to prominence for 17-year-old Ada.

It was through the influence of Somerville as her mentor and patron that Ada first made the acquaintance of inventor Charles Babbage. The wealthy Babbage often hosted soirees to which he invited members of high society. His events were noted for including only the “finest of guests” with one writer describing the three qualifications to receive an invite, “intellect, rank or beauty.” Ada had all three.

On the evening of their first encounter, Babbage unveiled his prototype of Difference Machine No. 1. While most guests politely glanced at the model without being drawn to it, Ada was intrigued and bombarded Babbage with questions about its performance. Thus began their decades’ long friendship.

The 'Lovelace Leap'

In 1835, Ada married William King who later became the Earl of Lovelace, making Ada the Countess of Lovelace. While raising three children and managing the household, she kept up her studies in mathematics.

Sometime in 1842, engineer Luigi Menabrea (who later became prime minister of Italy) transcribed and published one of Babbage’s lectures concerning his Analytical Engine, the Difference Engine’s more complex successor. Menabrea’s 67-page publication, while informative, was not widely read due to its technical nature, as well as the fact it was written in French.

When a friend of Babbage asked Ada to translate Menabrea’s article into English, she eagerly accepted. Over a nine-month period, she translated the article and, in the process, added her own notes about the Analytical Engine, making the article three times as long, but much easier to read and understand.

Ada’s translation was fascinating for two reasons: First, in her notes, she made what many refer to as the “Lovelace Leap,” conceiving the idea that “numbers could represent entities other than quantity.” Hypothesizing that anything could be represented in a numerical manner, she postulated that the Analytical Engine could do more than just crunch numbers, going so far as to claim “the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”

While Ada’s hypothesis went far beyond anything Babbage had considered, it was the second thing she did in her notes that brought her lasting recognition. She wrote an algorithm for the Analytical Engine to compute so-called Bernoulli numbers: a sequence of rational numbers that occur frequently in number theory. Ada’s algorithm is considered the first algorithm specifically tailored for implementation on a computer.

Alas, for both Lovelace and Babbage, the Analytical Engine was never built and her program was never tested. Lovelace would later fall on hard times when she took to gambling on horses. It is widely believed that she attempted to develop a mathematical model for picking horses, apparently falling short of the goal.

Though successful at first, she would eventually lose more than £500,000. She also suffered serious illnesses that brought on an addiction to laudanum and, in 1852 at age 36, Lovelace passed away from uterine cancer. In defiance of her mother’s wishes, Lovelace chose to be buried in the Byron family vault in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, England.

The Lovelace legacy

Although her algorithm was never tested, modern-day programmers have recognized Lovelace’s significance to computer programming in a number of endearing and enduring ways. Her notes on the Analytical Engine appeared 101 years later as an appendix to B.V. Bowden’s, Faster than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines.

The Ada programming language was developed by the U.S. Department of Defense.

The U.S. Department of Defense in 1980 sponsored the development of “Ada”, a high-level programming language that superseded more than 450 programming languages in use at that time. It was named in Lovelace’s honor and is still in use in the realms of the aviation, healthcare, transportation, financial, infrastructure, and space industries.

Internationally, the second Tuesday in October is celebrated as “Ada Lovelace Day” to recognize the achievements of women in the various STEM fields and encourage more girls to follow that path.

Ada Lovelace believed that walking on the “thresholds of unknown worlds” via science was the key to future progress. She was right and one can only imagine how the history of the world would have been different if Babbage’s Analytical Engine had been built — and Lovelace’s algorithm tested. If Charles Babbage is the inventor of the “Greatest Machine Never Built,” then Ada Lovelace is the forgotten spark that would have changed the world.

Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author
Calvin Harper

Calvin Harper is a writer, editor, and publisher who has covered a variety of topics across more than two decades in media. Calvin is a former GoCertify associate editor.