This exotic figure in the history of computing is honoured with an English Heritage Blue Plaque at 12 St. James’s Square, SW1.
Ada Lovelace, as she became known, was born Augusta Ada Byron. She was the daughter of Lord Byron and his wife, whose maiden name was Anne Isabella Milbanke. Her parents separated a month after her birth and Lord Byron never saw his daughter again. He did, however, ask his sister to keep him informed about the child’s welfare. He died aged only thirty six.
Ada was famous for her work with Charles Babbage on his ‘Analytical Engine’ and is said to be responsible for the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine. This earned her the title of the first computer programmer, but some historians do not agree this was deserved, among them are Alan G Bromley and Bruce Collier who seem to agree that she could have been the first ‘debugger’.
Ada was brought up by her mother who was clever at mathematics and recognised her daughter’s talent in this subject, and her interest, both of which she encouraged. Her mother did not want her to develop any of her father’s “wildness” and thought mathematics would discipline her mind. Ada also spent much time with her maternal grandmother, Judith, the Honourable Lady Milbanke. Ada and her mother did not have a close relationship.
Mary Somerville, William Frend and Augustus de Morgan tutored the young Ada and she got on well with them. As women could not study mathematics seriously in her day, she was lucky to meet Charles Babbage, who was developing his calculating machine, ‘the Analytical Engine’; a mechanical calculating engine (a copy can be found in the Science Museum) and considered the inspiration for modern computers.
During correspondence with Babbage, she honed her mathematical skills. An Italian scientist had written a review of Babbage’s work which Ada translated. She was invited to add some notes of her own. Her notes were more lengthy than the original article. She saw the potential of Babbage’s machine which he had not. She pointed out the stages by which the machine could give answers to mathematical problems. It also occurred to her it could be used for graphics and the making of music. Wild thoughts indeed, but there was truth in them.
Unfortunately none of Babbage’s machines were built in his lifetime as they required advanced construction techniques beyond the scope of engineering of the day.
The computer language ADA is named after Ada. It was created on behalf of the United States Department of Defense, the reference manual being approved in 1980.
In 1835 Ada married William King, 8th Baron King. They lived in Ockham Park, Surrey. He became the Earl of Lovelace. They had two sons and a daughter.
Ada was a lively character, interested in phrenology and mesmerism. She showed something of her father’s wild streak when she joined an all male gambling syndicate and attempted to produce a mathematical model for large scale successful betting. It failed and the syndicate was left in debt.
Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, died aged just thirty six, the same age as her father. Although she did not know her father, they are buried together in the family vault in St Mary Magdalene Church, Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.