Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

Portrait of Ada Lovelace

The Enchantress of Numbers

What, you mean you don’t know who Ada Lovelace is?

Quick lesson time.

Ada Gordon was born in 1815, the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron. Her mother, Annabella Milbanke, feared that Ada would inherent Byron’s ‘poetic’ temperament; so, being a lady of mathematics herself, Annabella insisted that Ada study math, science, and logic – which, for women, was quite unusual at the time!

At 19, Ada married William King, an aristocrat.  When King was made Earl of Lovelace in 1938, Ada became Lady Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. (So while ‘Ada Lovelace’ is not technically correct, it’s become the name referred to her over time).

In 1833, Ada attended a party, alongside her mentor Mary Sommerville (a scientist and polymath), who in turn introduced her to Charles Babbage. By this time, Babbage was relatively renown for his (unfinished) giant clockwork calculating machines. Ada and Babbage both had personalities that were not quite the norm for the time, and hit it off quite well together, forming a close and life-long friendship.

Now, Ada was quite interested in Babbage’s Analytical Machine – a rather complicated device which combined an array of gears to his previous Difference Engine with a punchcard system. Ultimately, this machine was never built, but it contained elements of what is now our modern computers.

In 1842, Ada published a translation of an article on the Analytical Machine originally wrote by Luigi Menabrea, an Italian  mathematician. Babbage requested her to elaborate and expend the article, since she “understood the machine so well”.  The final article turned out to be around three times the length of the original, with Ada adding her own extensive notes! Some of these notes included the first published description of a step wise sequence of operations to solve certain math problems, and contained thoughts and ideas of what machines could do, such as composing music. Because of this, Ada is referred to as “the world’s first computer programmer”. Babbage spoke highly of Ada’s intellect, praising her mathematical skills; it was he, in fact, who so dubbed her “The Enchantress of Numbers”:

Forget this world and all its troubles and if
possible its multitudinous Charlatans – every thing
in short but the Enchantress of Numbers.

Quite unfortunately, her life was a short one. She said at 36 years old from uterine cancer.

But, luckily, that was not the end of her contributions.  Her notes helped to inspire Alan Turing (Turing Test, anyone?), and became some of the critical documents needed on his work on modern computers.

It’s easy to see why she’s such a revered figure. And she’s a fantastic role model for everyone – especially young women, specifically those wishing to pursue a career in science, math, or technology. People around the world celebrate Ada Lovelace for her tremendous contributions to society, and use this day to honour her – and other women, modern or not – who helped contribute to the various aforementioned fields.

But I’m leaving quite a bit out about her, and Ada Lovelace Day. I’m not going to give away everything that’s known! Go look it up!

…Oh, she also fought crime with Babbage, too. That’s very important to remember.

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