Augusta Ada, Countess Of Lovelace

I know I am oh so late in making this post, but who can blame me for making it on exactly a month to the day after I was supposed to?

So to give myself some sort of introduction to this post, I was supposed to write something about a woman in the technology industry whom I admired or thought was important for the industry.  Well after I wrote quite a bit about what I thought about the industry a few months ago, who better than to promote than the woman I actually did some research in.  Below is the chapter I wrote about Ada Lovelace in my dissertation for History of Computation [which you can read by clicking here].

Ada Lovelace, as she has come to be known, first met Babbage at a party in June 1833, at the age of seventeen. Two weeks later, Babbage showed his Engine to her and her mother, to which she was enchanted by. Ada, as it seems was a budding mathematician, and being the daughter of a famous poet, she was often in the public eye.

Shortly after Ada was born her mother separated from her father, and was left to the sole care of her mother. It was her mother who had the mathematical background and is likely to have ignited the passion for the subject that she held through her life.

In July 1835, at the age of nineteen, Ada married William King (the eighth Lord of Ockham, later having his status levated to Earl of Lovelace).

Between 1836 and 1839 Ada and William had three children, adding to the burden of being a mistress of three residences. She had very little time for mathematics during this period, but in 1839 she wrote to Babbage asking him to recommend a mathematics tutor, to whom she was pointed to Augustus De Morgan and restarted her mathematics tuition.

In 1841, Ada wrote to Babbage offering her services as a mathematician to him. Babbage had not long returned from Turin where his Analytical Engine had been successfully appreciated by many of his peers. Her interest in his work must have been very uplifting for Babbage, who was probably thinking that his efforts had been going unnoticed, especially in his own country.

It was on the suggestion by Charles Wheatstone that Ada translated the paper written by Menabrea which had been written in French as mentioned earlier. The paper was successfully translated by Ada from French to English and published in Scientific Memoirs, an English journal specifically for publishing foriegn scientific papers. Babbage asked her why she had not written an entirely new article, having such a keen interest in the Engine, to which she responded by annotating the original paper written by Menabrea.

Ada completely lost herself in her work, going to every length possible to write a most comprehensive description of the Engine. Babbage had mostly completed the large sections of the Engine, and was merely tinkering and tweaking the designs. He was probably glad for the interest and energy the young Ada had towards him and his work.

As the document increased in content, Ada tried to steer away from the spat that had happened with the Government and Peel, but Babbage thought that any published work on the Engine needed some description of the reason his machines were being ignored by the Government. He drafted a letter to be included with Ada’s publication, but requested that his letter remain anonymous, all of this being without Ada knowing. The publishers were reluctant to include his addition, and he asked Ada to publish her document elsewhere. One is able to imagine how Ada must have felt, having completely believed that the translation of Menabrea’s work and her own notes and sketches being taken for granted, and that Babbage could use the paper as leverage in his quarrel with the Government.

Ada refused to publish her paper alongside Babbages letter and eventually the article was printed in August 1843. The author was published as ‘A.A.L’ as it was unusual for a female, a lady of Ada’s social status, to admit to having written a scientific paper. Babbage, being the stubborn character he was, published his letter to the Philosophical Magazine a few weeks later anonymously. Ada took the opportunity to request some ground rules for Babbage if he required her services any longer. Such services as acting as a buffer between Babbage and the outside world – history proves he was not the most adept when it came to public relations.

Throughout history, there are several notions about what exactly Ada achieved and what history has been altered to what we (in the sense of the general population) believe now. The general notion is that Lady Lovelace studied and worked on Babbage’s Analytical Engine and wrote various instructions that could perform some mathematical task and produce outputs, essentially she is named in history as the first programmer.

In The Cogwheel Brain – Doron Swade the author discounts her ability as the first programmer, and merely that she published earlier work by Babbage under her own name. The claims are that historians close to the details of Babbages works claim that her contributions do not align with the recorded chronology of events. History has been confused by misguided tributes to Ada, and as such she has been elevated to a position that she does not neccessarily have the right to hold.

Another source claims:

“[…] if you look through the manuscripts that are left, there
was quite a lot of evidence that what she was not good at is
the routine algebraic manipulation of figure and equations and
understanding geometry. On the other hand, her great skill did lie
in having a visionary view of what mathematics could achieve and
I think that’s why she did become so involved in describing the
Analytical Engine. She understood the concepts and appreciated
the possiblities and the potential in this machine. But at the same
time, I don’t think she was as proficient day to day mathematician
in the sense of being able to juggle equations and solve geometrical

Whatever has been said about Ada, she did one thing that no other did in England: to publish the most comprehensive portrayal of computing and machines for the age that the Engines were conceived. She was able to see that the Analytical Engine was not only a manipulator of numbers in an algebraic fashion, but that these numbers mean much more than quantity – for example, numbers can represent musical notes, symbols, or letters of the alphabet – and that Babbage had designed a machine that had a grip on the world, in ways that are independent of arithmetic. “A machine that could manipulate symbols according to rules.”

Ada contracted cervical cancer which was not found until very late into its progression, and died at the young age of thirty-six on the 27th November 1852.


~ by shepherdnick on April 24, 2009.

4 Responses to “Augusta Ada, Countess Of Lovelace”

  1. . “Two weeks later, Babbage showed his Engine to her and her mother, to which she was enchanted by”

    That still makes me giggle every time. I’m so glad you left it in! 😀

  2. I left it in for you Rich 😀

  3. Awesome post Nick. A good read, and an excellent HoC dissertation 😀

  4. Bring back the Shepherdnick Forums!

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