Portrait of Ada Lovelace

    Ada Lovelace

    Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852) is often referred to as the world’s first computer programmer. The daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron, and the admired intellect, Annabella Milbanke, Ada Lovelace represented the meeting of two alternative worlds: the romanticism and art of her father versus the rationality and science of her mother. In her attempt to draw together these polar opposites and create a ‘poetical science’ during the Victorian age, Ada collaborated with the renowned mathematician and inventor, Charles Babbage.

    In Victorian Britain printed mathematical tables were used by navigators, architects, engineers, mathematicians and bankers, but these tables were calculated by human clerks (literally called ‘calculators’) and they were riddled with errors. Charles Babbage became interested in mechanising the production of these tables and he developed a series of diagrams and prototypes which enabled him to explore his ideas.

    Babbage designed two types of engine, Difference Engines and Analytical Engines. The Difference Engines are calculators that work using pure addition. In contrast The Analytical Engines mark a progression towards a machine that can conduct a number of different functions, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division – in short a general purpose machine with a design that embodies many of the characteristics to today’s modern computers.

    Ada Lovelace’s reputation comes from her important work interpreting Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Following a visit to Turin in 1840 by Babbage, and the Italian Engineer, Luigi Menabrea, wrote a paper describing the principles of the machine. Ada then translated this paper from French but in doing so she added lengthy notes and further level of understanding which perhaps even Babbage himself had not achieved. Babbage was impressed with her work, describing her as ‘the Enchantress of Numbers’ and addressed her in a letter as ‘my dear and much admired interpreter’. Ada had understood the significance of the Analytical Engine and its implications for computational method. She saw that through the punched card input device the Analytical Engine opened up a whole new opportunity for designing machines that could manipulate symbols rather than just numbers. Her achievements are even more exceptional given the attitudes of Victorian Britain towards the intellectual pursuits of women.