Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace - The Founder of Scientific Computing

Even her title demands that I pay her tribute! Her parentage is certainly noteworthy, but she achieved what few women would have been capable of prior to the 20th Century, and became famous in her own right.
Born in London, England, on December 10th, 1815, Ada was only five years old when the Regency Era came to an end as George IV rose to the throne on January 29th 1820. Ada's father, Lord Byron, was a romantic poet - perhaps the most famous one during that period. He was however also a notorious womanizer, which perhaps explains why Ada's mother, Anne Isabelle Milbanke, requested a separation from him only five weeks after Ada had been born - quite a shocking thing to do at that time! But her request was met and she was even granted sole custody of Ada. Since Byron left England when Ada was only four months old and never returned (he died in Greece from a fever he contracted in 1823), she would never meet her famous father.
Terrified that her daughter would follow in Byron's poetical footsteps, Anne deliberately ensured that  Ada would be tutored in mathematics and music. Even so, Ada hoped to be an "analyst and metaphysician," asking of her mother, if you can't give me poetry, can't you give me "poetical science?"
Ada's encounter with Charles Babbage at a dinner party hosted by Mrs. Somerville (a Scottish science writer and polymath with an interest in mathematics and astronomy), would prove to be invaluable. He described to Ada his ideas for the Analytical Engine, which was to be programmed using punched cards.
In 1843, following a lecture given by Babbage on the development of the Analytical Engine in Italy, the Italian mathematician, Menabrea, published an article summarizing Babbage's ideas. By then, Ada had married the Earl of Lovelace (again - fabulous title!) and was the mother of three children under the age of eight.
Upon reading Menabrea's article, Ada took it upon herself to translate it. After showing her work to Babbage, he encouraged her to include her own notes, which turned out to be three times the length of the original article, describing many aspects of computer architecture and programming. Included in her comments were the predictions that such a machine might be used to compose complex music, produce graphics, and that it would be used for both practical and scientific use. Pretty innovative, right?
She also suggested that Babbage make a plan for how the engine might calculate Bernoulli numbers. This plan is now considered the first "computer program".
Unfortunately, her life was brief, and she died from cancer in 1852 at the age of only 36. Neither Babbage or Ada got to see the Analytical Engine fully completed since only a trial model was produced before Babbage's death.
In 1991 the London Science Museum built a working model of Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2, which incorporated some adjustments discovered by Babbage during his work on the Analytical Engine. In 2010, British programmer, John Graham-Cumming began raising funds for the construction of a working model of the Analytical Engine. As far as I can tell, it still hasn't been built, but here's a really fascinating talk (just 12 minutes of brilliance) by Graham-Cumming on the Analytical Engine which will explain exactly how the machine was intended to work.


  1. Love this post Sophia!!! I've been doing my own research into Ada for a while now and you have every bit of information and more from what I've found! Thanks you so much! Ada is my favorite Historical female~ =)

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. She really is impressive! I'm going to try gathering info on interesting people from that people so I'm thinking of looking into Mrs. Somerville next. Love it when one bit of research leads to another :)