If you’ve been watching ITV’s Victoria, you might have spotted the appearance of Ada Lovelace, a female mathematician. She’s not made up, and today (10th October) is her day!
Ada Lovelace Day is an international day to celebrate the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths, and falls on the second Tuesday of October every year. Around the world there are independently organised events to celebrate the day, including the Ada Lovelace Day Live! show in London, where women in STEM give talks about their work, the work of other women, or even comedy and musical shows.
So who was Ada Lovelace? Lovelace is often regarded as the first computer programmer; she was the creator of the first algorithm.
Lovelace worked with and was mentored by Charles Babbage, who was known as ‘the father of computers’, on his mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. It was designed to carry out calculations, but Ada was the first to realise its potential for applications beyond this. When she translated a French article about the Analytical Engine, she added her own insights, tripling the length of the article.
She wrote that the 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… Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of [mathematical] expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”
In other words, she saw that codes could be written for the engine to work with letters and symbols, as well as numbers, and even music, pictures and other sounds. The machine could even compose pieces of music, using the mathematical relations between musical pitches. On top of all that, she worked out how the engine could repeat a series of instructions, now called looping in computer programming. However, her work was published in 1843, but it didn’t attract much attention when she was alive, and was only recognized in 1953, when technology finally caught up.
All of this is remarkable, and even more so because she was a woman. In the 19th century, science and maths were commonly considered to be too challenging for women, and therefore women weren’t taught even the basics. Lovelace’s mother, however, insisted that she learnt them, hoping that studying hard and logical subjects would stop her from becoming as moody and unpredictable as her father, the poet Lord Byron, who was abusive, unpredictable and womanising. Lovelace was his only legitimate child, and he threw her and her mother out of the house when she was only a month old. Lovelace never saw him again, but despite this, she was fascinated by him for all of her life, and ended up being buried next to him.
As intelligent as she was, Ada didn’t manage to avoid becoming addicted to prescribed drugs including opium and morphine. She experienced massive mood swings and withdrawal symptoms, and took up gambling, which she believed she could excel at using a mathematical method of predicting the results of horse races. She was wrong, and ended up in financial trouble, bad enough to make her secretly sell her family’s diamonds.
Contrary to popular opinion, some people maintain that Ada was simply reflecting the light of her mentor Babbage. He designed the Analytical Engine, but did not document many of his ideas. The first paper describing his work was written by an Italian, Federico Luigi Menagrea, and this is the article which Babbage asked Lovelace to translate and add her notes to. Babbage seems to dispute this though, saying, “I then suggested that she add some notes to Menabrea’s memoir, an idea which was immediately adopted. We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced: I suggested several, but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process.”
However, even if Babbage should be considered the actual first programmer, Lovelace’s work was instrumental, and she was certainly capable enough to correct his own work. She even went on to inspire Alan Turing, the creator of the Turing machine, which is considered the first model of a general purpose computer.
And did she really make Queen Victoria jealous? We’ll never know – but it is likely that she and Prince Albert would have crossed paths.