Ada Lovelace and the Invention of Code

Ada Lovelace - 1815 to 1852

The year was 1815.  The American Civil War was 46 years away, and Mark Twain wouldn't be born for another 20 years.  James Madison was President, and the still young United States of America were recovering from the second war with England, the War of 1812.  And Ada Lovelace was born. 

Early Life

Ada Lovelace was born Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace and was the daughter of Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Milbanke, or Lady Byron while the two were married.  Lord Byron was a famous poet and notorious philanderer of his day.  Lady Byron, fearing that her husband was having an affair with his own half sister and was struggling with insanity, eventually divorced Lord Byron in 1816 and left London , taking baby Ada with her.  Fathers maintained full custody of their children in England at the time, but Lord Byron never attempted to regain custody of his daughter, and they never saw each other again.

Ada Lovelace at 4 years old

Ada at 4 Years Old

Ada spent much of her youth ill.  She experienced debilitating migraine headaches as young as 8 years old, and spent nearly a year in bed rest for a bout of measles in 1829.  Despite her health problems Ada performed revolutionary science at a very young age.  At 12 years old she decided she wanted to fly.  She studied birds for inspiration, and in 1828 took her first step by constructing wings.  In 1828, at age 13, she wrote and illustrated "Flyology", which postulated on cross country travel with the use of a compass in a steam powered craft.  After a her tumultuous teenage years, culminating with an attempt to elope with her tutor in 1833 at age 17, Ada's life would be forever changed when she was introduced by her new tutor and friend, Mary Somerville, to Charles Babbage.

A Career in Mathematics

Ada Lovelace at 17

Lovelace at 17

Lovelace was already well known in science and mathematics circles when she met Charles Babbage, but Babbage, being much older (born in 1791) and already a respected scientist, was able to open doors to Lovelace.  Babbage was working on a revolutionary programmable mechanical computer, the "analytical engine".  While the computer was never completed, Babbage showed a working portion of to Lovelace shortly after their introduction in 1833. Lovelace was reportedly mesmerized and is possibly the only person at the time that realized the potential of the computer beyond simple calculation. 

Babbage and Lovelace's professional relationship continued, and It was through Babbage that Lovelace was admitted to the University of London as a student of Advanced Mathematics.  Despite her ambition, she put her studies on hold after her marriage to William, 8th Baron King in 1835, as was customary for women at the time.  After becoming Lady King, the two had three children together.  Though her name officially changed after the marriage she remains known to us today as Lady Lovelace.

In 1842 Ada Lovelace penned her masterpiece.  At the time it was very rare for a woman to write a scientific paper.  Lovelaces's education and continued relationship with Charles Babbage, however, led her to a job translating a French paper on Babbage's Analytical Engine into English.  It was common at the time for a translator to include footnotes on a translated work, and Babbage encouraged Lovelace to include her own thoughts in these notes.  Now simply known and "Notes", Lovelaces thoughts and theories eventually exceeded the length of the original work and formed the foundation of modern programming.

Ada Lovelace's Notes

At a time when the steam engine was only just becoming popular and the first production automobile was still over 50 years away Ada Lovelace was able to see a future in which would be capable of operations on "all subjects in the universe" (Note A, p. 693). 

She went on to say "Again, it [the Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine . . . Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent" (Note A, p. 694).

Ada Lovelace, for the first time in history, envisioned a world in which art, music, and everything in the universe could be expressed mathematically in such a way that it could be calculated by a programmable computer.  132 years before microsoft, 158 years before the first ipod, and 164 years before the first smartphone Lovelace had predicted programmable computers that could manipulate images and sounds, interpret human voices, and interact with people as people interact with each other.  She was able to prove her theories mathematically in Notes, which was significantly more that a paper of pure conjecture, and in fact Notes contains what is considered the very first computer algorithm.  Her theories were all developed based on partially completed computer that was never finished, and her vision shapes computing to this day.

The First Computer Algorithm

Lovelace's Algorithm from Notes

Later Year

Not content to live a quite life, Lovelace turned her mind to fad sciences of the day and to gambling.  Her attempt to develop a mathematical formula for betting lead to disastrous consequences and enormous debt, forcing her to confess to her husband not only her gambling losses but also her inappropriate relationships with other men.  Her health remained fragile, and rudimentary medical science and lack of effective medicine lead to an addiction to opium and medications containing opium.  In 1852 at age 36 she succumbed to uterine cancer and died, having left her mark on the world in ways that wouldn't be fully understood for more than a century.

Ada Lovelace the year of her death

Ada Lovelace in 1852, the Year of Her Death