Augusta Ada Byron King,
Countess of Lovelace
1815 1852

Credited with being the first person to detail the process now known as computer programming, Ada Byron was born in 1815 and lived in England during a time when women were excluded from the halls of learning. She was however determined at an early age to study mathematics and was fortunate to have friends and family who recognized her talent in mathematics and encouraged her to pursue her intense interest. Lady Byron, Ada's mother, was herself always interested in math and had started Ada early in her studies of the subject. Ada's tutors included such noteables as Augustus De Morgan, William Frend and Mary Somerville, Ada's favorite.

Some people were of the opinion that Lady Byron had an ulterior motive for this early intervention in Ada's education. Ada's father was Lord Byron, the famous English poet, who was known to be fiercely tempermental, passionate and even slightly mad. Lady Byron encouraged Ada's mathematical studies partially to control some of the too-passionate emotions Ada had inherited from her father. Ada hardly knew her father. Her parents were complete opposites and the marriage was unstable from the beginning. When Ada was only a few months old, Lord Byron wrote a note to Lady Byron and told her to take Ada and return to her parents. He never saw Ada again.

Ada was from an upper class family who spent the winter season in London. It was during one of these trips that Ada, 18, first met Charles Babbage, a widely-known inventor and scientist, whom she was to one day work very closely with. Babbage was displaying his current invention, the Difference Engine, one of the earliest forerunners to the modern computer. Unlike the average sightseer to Babbage's studio, Ada really understood the workings of the Difference Engine and saw it's great beauty and potential.

At nineteen years old, Ada married William, Lord King, who became Earl of Lovelace. They seemed to have a loving relationship. Lord Lovelace was very interested and supportive of Ada's work and seemed very proud of her accomplishments. Lady and Lord Lovelace had three children, two sons and a daughter, Lady Anne Blount, who became a famous Arabic scholar.

One year after her marriage, Lady Lovelace began writing to Charles Babbage. Wanting to continue her mathematical education, she was looking for a teacher. She had never forgotten the sight of the Difference Engine and implored Babbage to allow her to work with him. In 1942, she got her wish. Babbage had abandoned the Difference Engine and had begun work on a more advanced machine called the Analytical Engine. Ada was to translate a paper describing the function and theory of the Analytical Engine from French to English.

Because of Ada's deep understand of the Analytical Engine and her writing skills, her translation contained a set of her own "notes" that tripled the length of the original paper and made it superior. Babbage thought it should be considered a new paper, but Ada disagreed. They finally decided that she would sign with the initials "A. A. L." It was almost 30 years before the general public identified A. A. L. as Augusta Ada Lovelace. This would be Ada's only published work.

The correspondence of Lady Lovelace and Charles Babbage continued for eighteen years, the last of which were full of scandal, tragedy and failure. The two devised a fool-proof system of betting on the horses while working on mathematical theories of probability. Lady Lovelace, who had always had a passion for horse racing, became badly in debt, forcing her to sell the family jewels. Lord Lovelace worked hard to try to control her creditors and save her from scandal.

In 1852, at the age of 36, Ada Byron Lovelace died of cancer. She was virtually forgotten for 100 years following her death. But with the coming of the computer age, Lady Byron Lovelace's work is beging re-examined and she is finally receiving the credit she deserves. In 1952, she was paid tribute in a book on the history of computing and in 1980, the U. S. Department of Defense named its new programming language "Ada" after her.

Contributed by Nancy Ayers

References:

  1. Baum, J. (1986.). The calculating passion of Ada Byron. Hamden, CN: The Shoe String Press, Inc.
  2. Perl, T. (1978). Math equals, biographies of women in mathematics and related activities. Ada Byron Lovelace. (pp. 101-125). Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.
  3. Reimer, L. & Reimer, W. (1995). Mathematicians are people, too (Vol. 2). Conducting the computer symphony. (pp. 100-107). Palo Alto, CA: Dale Seymour Publications.

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