The Enchantress of Numbers: Ada Lovelace

7 years ago

The daughter of Lord Byron, mathematician, and the woman credited with being the world's first computer programmer still inspires...

Augusta Ada Byron, born in 1815, lived a short life of rigorous study, frequent illness, family drama and later, great intellectual and mathematical work. More than a hundred years after her death, she is an inspiration for computer scientists everywhere, especially women.

Her mother, Anne Isabella Milbanke, left Lord Byron a month after Ada was born, and raised her daughter in the family home in Kirkby Mallory. Determined to prevent Ada from becoming anything like her father, Lady Byron - because of her own interest in mathematics - provided Ada with a series of tutors and insisted that math be the primary focus in her studies.

At the age of thirteen, Ada contracted measles and was paralyzed for nearly a year afterward. She was able to continue her studies, however, and her own love of mathematics developed stronger with age. At age eighteen, she began to meet others who would not only influence her mathematical mindset, but who would play a part in her future in computing.

She met Mary Somerville, who would become her friend and mentor, as well as other notable scientific minds like Michael Faraday, Sir David Brewster, and Charles Wheatstone. She also met Charles Babbage, and became fascinated with his Difference Engine, which was a mechanical calculator designed to calculate polynomial functions. He was impressed with her ability to understand the mechanics of the machine as well as with her intelligence and writing talent, and they quickly became friends and colleagues.

Ada was married to William King, who later received the noble title of Earl of Lovelace, giving her the title of Countess. They had three children, but unlike most women of her times, Ada did not give up her love of mathematics and continued her work with Babbage and others.

Babbage, the one who dubbed Ada "the enchantress of numbers," had a project in mind called The Analytical Machine, and in 1842 he gave a lecture at the University of Turin describing his plans. An engineer named Luigi Menabrea wrote up the notes from the lecture and published it in Italian, and Babbage asked Ada to translate Menabrea's writings into English. She did so, and in the process added her own copious notes describing a method of using the device to calculate the Bernoulli numbers using a series of punched cards. Although the Analytical Machine was never built, it's considered to be a model of the modern computer, and Ada's program to use the device for complicated calculations is considered the first computer program.

Ada Lovelace died in 1852 at the age of 36 after suffering from uterine cancer. Having discovered years earlier that her mother lied to her about her Lord Byron, Ada found some sort of peace with him and had requested to be buried next to him after her death.

Her work on Babbage's Analytical Machine was re-published in 1953, and since then she has been regarded as the mind behind modern computer programming - anyone who remembers the punched cards of old can especially appreciate her contribution.

The U.S. Department of Defense developed an internal program called Ada, after Ms Lovelace - and the specs were labeled MIL-STD-1815 to honor her year of birth. Her legacy lives on still in medals given by the British Computer Society, in websites like adafruit industries, and in projects like Ada Lovelace Day, an orchestrated celebration of great women in science, technology, engineering, and math, in the spirit of Ada Lovelace.

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