Ada Lovelace: Mother of Modern Software
Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace — was a famous writer and mathematician known mostly for her work with Charles Babbage on the Analytical Engine.
In today's world of far less complex names, she is more commonly called Ada Lovelace.
She has also been dubbed as The Enchantress of Numbers and is considered to be the author of the first computer program.
While some may dispute that claim (see: multiple discovery theory), there is no doubt she was a true visionary and gifted intellectual who played a central role in the development of modern digital computers.
As early as the 1840s, she had published detailed descriptions of what we know today as modern computing: all-purpose machines that do many different things such as play music, manipulate graphics, and power heavy machinery.
It wasn't until a century later that her visions would be fully realized.
Ada Lovelace was born on December 10, 1815 in England. She was the daughter of Anna Isabella (Anabella) Noel Byron, and Lord Byron.
It is no surprise that she was able to connect ideas that many leading intellectuals of her time failed to see given that she herself was the product of two polar opposite thinkers.
Lord Byron was one of the most celebrated poets of his time. He was an international celebrity. Byron was also infamous for his adventures, which involve stories of him owning a pet bear and drinking out of a human skull.
Anabella Byron was quite the opposite. She was a highly educated and deeply religious woman. Anabella was also a gifted mathematician who prioritized order and logic over intuition.
As far as their ethos, the two couldn't have been further apart. Lord Byron was known to mockingly refer to Anabella as, "the princess of parallelograms." Coming from Lord Byron, this was not a compliment.
Their marriage was rocky from the start. It included a series of transgressions from Lord Byron, including a very public affair with his own half-sister.
After a tumultuous 12-month marriage, Anabella left Lord Byron and took Ada with her. A few months later, Lord Byron — who faced criminal charges, exiled himself from his homeland of England in 1816. By the time Ada was 8, her father was dead.
Anabella, perhaps scarred by the reckless behavior of Lord Byron, was worried that Ada would follow in his footsteps.
She took tight control over Ada's education, feeding her a strict diet of science and mathematics to curb any appetite she may for the romantic sensibilities of her father.
Anabella's insistence on her daughter's education paid dividends. Ada received a first-class education from private tutors.
This was unusual at the time; since it was generally accepted that women were too intellectually frail to study such esoteric concepts.
As Ada came of age, she would become entwined with some of the most prestigious intellectuals of her era. She rubbed elbows with the likes of David Bruster, Charles Dickens, Michael Faraday, and Charles Babbage.
Babbage and the Difference Engine
Charles Babbage was a renaissance man and is considered by many to be the "father of computer science."
He was an accomplished engineer, philosopher, mathematician, and economist. He was the founder of the Analytical Society, created important mathematical tables, and helped establish England's postal system.
The collaboration between Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace gives us precious insight into the development of modern computing.
It was a true intellectual match made in heaven when they met at a gathering on June 5, 1833 held by Babbage.
At the gathering, Babbage spoke passionately about his Difference Engine — a mechanical machine capable of creating complex mathematical tables.
The machine wasn't anything impressive by today's standards, but at the time it was the pinnacle of scientific innovation. Moreover, it displayed the groundwork for modern computing.
Ada's interest was piqued, to say the least. What many guests saw as an amusing curiosity, Ada saw as a paradigm shift.
As the wife of one of Ada's mathematical tutors, Sophia Frend, stated in her memoirs:
While other visitors gazed at the working of this beautiful instrument with the sort of expression, and I dare say the sort of feeling, that some savages are said to have shown on first seeing a looking-glass or hearing a gun — if, indeed, they had as strong an idea of its marvellousness — Miss Byron, young as she was, understood its working, and saw the great beauty of the invention.
Ada's meeting with Babbage was the beginning of a long friendship.
Although there was a 14 year age difference between Babbage and Lovelace, the two had much in common. Ada's foresight and creativity served as a catalyst to his prolific genius.
The First Computer Program
The successor to the Difference Engine was a more complex machine called the Analytical Engine.
The Analytical Engine used a punch card system in order to work, the same technology used in the Jacquared loom at the time.
Babbage gave a presentation on the Analytical Engine in Turin, which inspired an Italian scientist Luigi Federico Menabrea to publish a paper about his ideas in 1842.
This served to be a kernel that sparked Ada's genius. Ada Lovelace decided to translate the paper, as well as append her own notes.
Her ideas soon eclipsed the original paper, resulting in a manuscript that was three times longer than the original.
Significance and Contribution
But Ada Lovelace as more than just an assistant and translator to Babbage.
She saw computers and computer science for the world-changing technology that it was.
If Babbage is the father of the modern computer, she's the mother of modern software.
Her genius can really be broken down into a few key innovations she was responsible for. First, the Bernoulli numbers. Bernoulli numbers is simply a complex series of numbers.
Ada Lovelace wrote an algorithm that meant that the Analytical Machine could arrive at the correct number, every single time.
The actual calculation isn't that important — the real development was that you could write an algorithm that could break down a complex application into a series of steps, write those steps down, and feed them to the machine to get the same result every time.
This was the first computer program ever written, and the first time anyone had ever considered getting a machine to calculate something that you didn't already know in advance.
Lovelace looked beyond the series of numbers and tables that Babbage had originally designed his machines to deal with.
She realized that if you could write a program for a computer to manipulate numbers, you could write a program to teach a computer to manipulate symbols instead.
We now know this as symbolic logic, and it's the core underpinning of modern computers.
Of course, back when Lovelace was working on the Analytical Machine, that still laid in the future.
But it became clear that you could program the Analytical Machine to compute any abstract mathematical function, not just ones based on simple arithmetic.
By realizing that algorithms could be based on symbolic logic, one could delve much further into abstraction since the potential shape and form of the final output was not bounded by actual numbers.
It's really this development of symbolic logic, in conjunction with Babbage's hardware that made the Analytical Engine a Turing Machine, thus earning Babbage the title of "father of the modern computer."
Lovelace made one final integral contribution that led to the computer as we know it today. She realized all the computer could be.
In her notes (where most of these ideas were realized, specifically note G), Lovelace wrote that "the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves."
Which was a tremendous leap to make in the 1800s.
She's saying that given the right inputs, you can make the Analytical Machine do whatever you want — whether you want a pattern for a rug, the result to an equation, or even a new piece of music.
The output is irrelevant — so long as you can issue the right instructions, the computer can produce whatever you might need.
Ada Lovelace Today
Ada Lovelace represents hope, innovation, and progress.
To some extent, the weight of her accomplishments and intellectual prowess is hindered by her status as an icon for women's rights.
But she was an intellectual giant in her own right, who played an important part in some of the most important scientific developments in history.
Alan Turing who once said, "if Babbage had lived seventy-five years later, I would have been out of a job," was well aware of Ada's work.
He relied on her notes during his tenure as a codebreaker for the British military during World War II.
Coding for Kids
The work of Ada Lovelace can serve as an inspiration to hungry young minds everywhere. Below are links to books and media designed to introduce computer science to children.
Ada Lovelace | Draw My Life: a visually engaging cartoon about Ada Lovelace.
Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine (2015) by Laurie Wallmark: a book for kids grades 1-4.
Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women (2002) by Catherine Thimmish: a book for kids grades 5-8.
More on Ada Lovelace
Want to learn more about the life and work of Ada Lovelace? Check out the resources below.
Ada, A Life and a Legacy (1985) by Dorothy Stein: a biographical book about Ada.
Ada's Algorithm (2014) by James Essinger: a book about the life and work of Ada Lovelace.
The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer (2002) by Doron Swade: a book detailing the difference engine and the work.
Further Reading and Resources
We have more guides, tutorials, and infographics related to computers:
The History of Search Engines: the whole story of slow development from library databases to the modern engine.
History of the World Wide Web: learn about the journey from ARPANET all the way to the Internet of Things and beyond.
Ada Programming Introduction and Resources: learn all about the programming language named after Ada Lovelace.