The Enchantress of Numbers
Ada Lovelace is a singular figure in the history of computing. Despite living and dying a hundred years before the invention of the transistor, she is considered by many to be the first computer programmer. She was highly educated and corresponded with many of the brightest minds of her day but received little credit for her own intellectual contributions during her lifetime.
James Essinger’s biography Ada’s Algorithm quotes extensively from her correspondence. The letters suggest a woman who was at turns tenacious and deferential, energetic and brilliant yet circumscribed by the norms of her time. Here are some of the most interesting stories and takeaways from the book:
1. She had a very intense relationship with her mother. If you know anything about Ada Lovelace you probably know that her father was the rakish Romantic poet Lord Byron. However, Lord Byron only lived with Ada for a very brief period. Lord Byron married Annabella Milbanke in 1815, most likely for her family’s wealth (he found it vulgar to accept money for his poetry, but marrying into money was a-ok). After one tumultuous year of marriage in which Byron had many affairs, including one with his half sister, the marriage fractured. Lady Bryon left one morning with baby Ada for her parents’ home and the couple never reconciled. Lord Byron left England soon after to escape his creditors and died eight years later of a fever in the Greek War of Independence .
Lady Byron exerted a strong influence on her daughter throughout her entire life, carefully monitoring Ada’s education, friendships, and romantic prospects. Lady Byron could be overbearing and controlling, but she can be credited for prioritizing Ada’s education at a time where it wasn’t believed that ladies of her class had a role outside of the domestic sphere. Lady Byron, who was highly educated herself, thought that educating her daughter in mathematics would tamp down the wild imagination she feared Ada had inherited from her father.
2. One of her tutors was concerned that she was making herself ill by applying herself to such large and difficult questions. After Ada experienced a brief illness, her mathematics tutor Augustus De Morgan wrote to Lady Byron expressing concern about Ada’s studies.
All women who have published mathematics hitherto have shown knowledge, and the power of getting it, but no one, except perhaps (I speak doubtfully) Maria Agnesi has wrestled with difficulties and shown a man’s strength in getting over them. The reason is obvious: the very great tension of mind which they require is beyond the strength of a woman’s physical power of application. - Augustus De Morgan, 1840
Yikes. Fortunately, Lady Byron did not take De Morgan’s input to heart and Ada’s education continued.
3. Her husband had a penchant for building tunnels. William Lovelace was young, handsome, wealthy, and met Lady Byron’s chief requirement of possessing a title at least 100 years old. From Ada’s letters before and after the wedding it sounds as if she was enthusiastic about the match. However, as the years passed Ada began to find Lord Lovelace rather aimless. Left to his own devices, he expended a lot of time and money building tunnels at their country homes with no clear purpose.
‘You can have no conception of what my husband is, when his home alone occupies his irritable energies.‘ - Ada Lovelace in a letter to Charles Babbage, 1846
4. She published just one paper in her lifetime. Ada was a correspondent and close friend of inventor and polymath Charles Babbage. Babbage invented a machine to perform arithmetic calculations he dubbed the Difference Engine, and later improved on his invention with the more sophisticated Analytical Engine. The Analytical Engine was designed to accept punch cards as inputs and perform many of the functions of a modern computer: storing variables, handling conditional statements, etc.
Ada was fascinated by the Analytical Engine and decided to translate an article on the subject by Italian engineer Luigi Menabrea. When she told Babbage that she intended to do the translation he suggested she had the expertise to write an article of her own. She stuck with the translation but added a Notes section three times the length of the translated article. In the notes she discussed possibilities and limitations of the Analytical Engine, showing a prescient understanding of how the machine could be used for more than just arithmetic and algebra.
Again, it 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 […] the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent. -Ada Lovelace’s Notes, 1843
Later she writes about how automated computation might aid scientific discovery.
In truth, how many precious observations remain practically barren for the progress of the sciences, because there are not powers sufficient for computing the results!
This passage could have been written 50 years ago, 20 years ago, or yesterday. In just the past decade advances in computing power have opened a new frontier in the area of deep learning, where neural networks are used for tasks like machine learning and image processing.
The notes also describe a series of steps the machine could go to to calculate the Bernoilli sequence, considered by many to be the first computer program.
5. She could have been the Jobs to Babbage’s Woz. In August of 1843, Ada sent Babbage a 16 page letter with a proposal. Ada suggested that she take over the campaign to build the Analytical Engine and manage all further communications with government funders and others. Babbage was a brilliant scientist but a poor diplomat and his own negotiations with the government had ended acrimoniously. Ada felt she had the connections and the interpersonal skills to effectively justify the machine’s utility and get the project moving again. Babbage refused immediately with little explanation and no part of the Analytical Engine was ever built.
7. She was friends with Charles Dickens Ada, Dickens and Babbage were in the same social circles and attended many of the same soirees in London. Dickens visited Ada at home several times in the final days of her life. She asked him to read the scene from Dombey and Son where little Paul Dombey dies, which she said gave her great comfort.
Ada passed away a few weeks later at the age of 36 from uterine cancer. She was buried beside her father in a churchyard near his former estate Newstead Abbey, long since sold to pay his creditors.