Ada Lovelace

Is thy face like thy mother’s, my fair child!

ADA! sole daughter of my house and heart?

When last I saw thy young blue eyes they smiled,

And then we parted, — not as now we part, But with a hope. –( Child Harold Pilgrimages, Canto III)

Ada Lovelace never saw her father, yet in a way he never left her. Her name Augusta Ada, for example, was always to remind her the scandalous liaison he had had with her aunt Augusta Leigh, actually, his step sister, who was so dear to him to dispose that his daughter should be named after her. Easy to guess, her parents’ marriage came to an end soon and the small talk concerning the circumstances of their divorce would follow her till her death. This may happen when your father is poetry super star George Byron. The swelling tide of rumours about his indecorous conduct forced him to leave the country when Ada was only five weeks old, never to come  back. He died in Greece, when she was only eight years old.

Her mother, who came from a rich family and was a renowned mathematician, in a way feared her daughter might be inclined to the study of humanities just like her father and introduced Ada to her own field of expertise. It was soon evident that the magic of words was not to be in her future, but rather the enchant of numbers. At the age of 12 she made the project of a steam power flight machine. As a true scientist she studied birds’ mechanisms of flight, and then examined various materials, including silk, feathers and paper, with which to build wings. She jotted down the results of her research and recorded each experiment in an illustrated guide, entitled Flyology . One of her tutors proclaimed that if a young male student had her skills “they would have certainly made him an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence”. But she was just a girl.

Lady Byron decided to enhance Ada’s natural aptitude to Math entrusting her training to Mary Somerville, a Scottish astronomer and mathematician, who in 1835 would become the first woman to be accepted, as an honorary member, by the Royal Astronomical Society. Once out in society at the age of 17, it is Mary Sommerville that  introduced Ada to William King, who will become her husband and make her Countess of Lovelace and scientist Charles Babbage, the inventor the “Difference Engine”, a first model of automatic calculator designed to tabulate polynomial functions.

When Ada was invited by Babbage himself to see a demonstration of how the “Difference Engine” worked, she was strongly impressed. She couldn’t know it then, but the “Difference Engine” would change her life and would also be the beginning of a long friendship and a fruitful working relationship with Babbage.The man, who at first underestimated that curious girl, began to change his mind and to open up more. They began to correspond about science and even to discuss his ever evolving projects. He also encouraged Ada to indulge her evident predisposition for numbers and to put her potential to good use. For those times, it was not at all easy: the Victorian patriarchal society was hostile towards the ladies who tried to overcome the intellectual, cultural and social boundaries imposed on them.

In  1835, a year before Ada married, Babbage had begun to plan the “Analytical Engine”, a computing system that used cards to multiply and divide numbers and perform a variety of data tasks. The mathematician was forced to seek support and investments on the project abroad, as the British government had tightened the purse strings and this is the reason why in September 1840 Babbage attended the Second Congress of Italian Scientists in Turin.

Among the people in the audience there was the engineer Luigi Menabrea, who offered to draw up a description of the analytical engine, hitherto non-existent. The article appeared two years later in French (Notions sur la machine analytique de Charles Babbage), in a Swiss magazine. Ada Lovelace, who knew French and every aspect of Babbage’s creature very well, proposed herself as a translator. No, actually she did something more.

She added to Menabrea’s writing some of her notes. The new text, almost three times longer than the original, was published in the British magazine “Taylor’s Scientific Memoir” in August 1843. It was signed simply A.A.L. (the initials of Augusta Ada Lovelace) to hide the author’s gender.

Ada Lovelace’s notes also contained in complete detail, a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers using the Analytical Engine, the so called “Note G”.  In short, the first computer program in history. This is the reason why today Ada is considered the founder of the science of programming, at least in its theoretical aspects: for her, in fact, what mattered was the possibility of demonstrating that only one machine could really be applied for multiple purposes, thanks to the instructions that were provided.

Her intuitive mind was able to see even more: if, following instructions, those machines could manipulate numbers, then they would also be able to manipulate the symbols they represented, like musical notes or letters of the alphabet. In a way she was able imagine the behaviour of our modern computers.

Babbage never managed to build his analytical engine and Ada Lovelace could never test his program as she died of uterine cancer at the age of 36. Thus, for over 100 years after her death, no one remembered her, except as Lord Byron’s only legitimate daughter. Her scientific contribution remained underestimated until the “father of computer science” Alan Turing rediscovered her notes in 1936. It is possible that the British mathematician was inspired by Ada’s ideas in theorizing artificial intelligence.

The greatest tribute to Lovelace’s work, however, came in the 1980s, when the US Department of Defence called ADA  the newly developed programming language DOD-1 (Department of Defense 1). Furthermore, since 2009, Ada Lovelace Day has been celebrated around the world on the second Tuesday in October, to acknowledge the achievements of women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

By the ways, Ada Lovelace was more alike to her father than her story tells, in fact, she did have the gift of poetry, but she applied it to science. She actually declared in a letter that she aspired to what she considered a “poetic science” and that “ imagination is also the faculty of combining“, that is, “of finding points in common between subjects who have no apparent connection”, but “pre-eminently it is the faculty of discovery. It is what penetrates into the invisible worlds around us, the worlds of Science ”. Those could be the words of any romantic poet; just like her father. When she died, she wanted to be buried next to him at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. Together at last.