The dainty aristocratic ‘enchantress of numbers’ who made history


I love science and numbers and all things logical. I also love women for all their complexity. August is Women’s month in South Africa, and I would like to dedicate it to Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace - better known as Ada Lovelace, arguably the first computer programmer ever.

Ada was the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke, 11th Baroness Wentworth. She was born on 10 December 1815, a short while before her parents separated because of Lord Byron’s unfaithfulness. He soon emigrated to Greece where he died 9 years later at the age of 36, and his body was brought back to England and buried in the family vault near Newstead.

Her mother encouraged young Ada to study mathematics and logic because she feared if the girl studied literature she would inherit her father’s madness.

So Ada did study mathematics, but she also inherited her father’s literary talent and often referred to her work as ‘poetical science’. She was a dreamer and wanted to fly, so she studied the anatomy of birds and the structure of their feathers.

When she was only 13, Ada designed a steam-propelled ‘flying machine’, and decided to write a book called ‘Flyology’, using plates she herself invented, to illustrate the book.

In 1833, her tutor, Mary Somerville, introduced Ada to Charles Babbage, who showed her the prototype of his Difference Engine. Their friendship and mutual respect for each other’s mind soon evolved into a working relationship.

She was a pretty, dainty girl, but struggled with health issues all her life. This did not stop her from being quite active on the Victorian social scene from the age of 18, as was expected from someone of her lineage. She married William King when she was 19, and their union produced 3 children. 

When Babbage asked Ada in 1842 to translate Luigi Menabrea’s memoir on his more ambitious project, the Analytical Engine, from French into English, Ada must have been on Cloud Nine. 

It is commonly believed that women are more detail-oriented than men, and Ada took this theory further with her use of numbers. Not only did she translate Menabrea’s memoir, but she made quite a few additions, including a detailed method of calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers with the engine. In her notes, Ada explained the differences between the Analytical Engine and the Deference Engine and described how the Analytical Engine could be programmed by means of punched cards. This is reputed to be the first computer programme in history. Her work impressed Babbage so much that he called her ‘the Enchantress of Numbers’.  

Ada was quite dismissive of ‘artificial intelligence’ and predicted that the engine would only follow analysis, but had ‘no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths’. She did however predict that these principles could be used for other applications such as music and gambling (apparently one of Ada’s vices).

There are many arguments for and against the claim that Ada Lovelace was the world’s first computer programmer, but any person who can design a flying machine at the age of 13, and understand Bernoulli numbers at any age, has my utmost respect. Her work was obviously respected by authorities far greater than me, such as the US Department of Defence, who named their programming language, developed in the late 1970’s, after Ada.

More her father’s daughter than her mother would have liked, Ada and her husband separated shortly before her death, because he accused her of having an affair. She died of uterine cancer in 1852, also at the age of 36, and was laid to rest next to the father she never knew but had so much in common with.

(Sources: Wikipedia and memories of history lessons long ago)