From Windows and OSX on your desktop to iOS and Android on your phone, software is everywhere, even in the programming of your microwave and refrigerator. It’s such a mundane yet critical part of life that we often take it for granted. But it had to come from somewhere.
When you think of the first computer programmer, you probably think of a nerdy scientist working in a laboratory. But you’re wrong. Amazingly, that title goes to an Englishwoman born nearly 200 years ago, who wrote her work from an inkwell without the benefit of light bulbs — all while raising three children.
Ada Lovelace, born as Augusta Ada Byron on December 10, 1815, was the daughter of a brief marriage between Romantic poet Lord Byron, famous for the narrative piece “Don Juan,” and Anne Isabelle Milbanke. As his only legitimate heir, she grew up never knowing her famous father, who was known for extravagant living, huge debts, numerous love affairs and scandalous behavior. Modern biographers speculate he suffered from bi-polar disorder, according to ABC News, and four months after her birth, he fled England, never to return, dying in Greece eight years later.
As a child, Lovelace was outgoing and free-spirited, but her mother, fearing her personality resembled her flighty and temperamental father, pushed her into mathematics, music and languages, hoping to counter any innate and dangerous poetic tendencies.
At a time when most children worked to help their household, and sons of affluent families received religion-based instruction, that education was unheard of, much less for a girl. In fact, Queen’s College, London’s first higher-level institution for women, didn’t even exist yet, and when it did open in 1848, its founder faced harsh criticism for expanding the education to the fairer sex.
Lovelace grew up suffering from several childhood illnesses, like measles, which left her bedridden for long periods of time. The isolation, though, led her to pursue her academic interests as an escape. And by the age of 13, she’d designed a flying machine, showing an aptitude for math and science that would later earn her a place in history. As is often the case descendants of great artists, her biological talents found their way to the surface — but unlike her father, her achievements would be in mathematics.
Her advancement in science was unusual for a woman, to say the least, but science, then, was altogether an unusual pursuit, confined to rich gentlemen of leisure who spent their time and fortunes pursuing botany, geology and astronomy. Those studies were more like hobbies, with no professional scientists or institutions dedicated to research and study. In fact, the word “scientist” wasn’t coined until 1836, according to NPR.
In 1833, Lovelace met Charles Babbage, one of these gentlemanly hobbyists, who was also a professor of mathematics at Cambridge. Babbage had just invented the “Difference Engine” — basically, a very large calculator — and came to her house to show his creation for her mother’s friends. Then, at age 17, Lovelace began writing Babbage, discussing topics like mathematics and logic, which would continue through their lifelong friendship, according to the Christian Science Monitor. She’d found a mentor for her scientific pursuits and passions.
Two years later, after blossoming into a beautiful young woman, she married William King, inheriting his family title of Earl and Countess of Lovelace. Despite rearing three children and an active social life, she worked to help Babbage realize his grandest dream — what he called an “Analytical Engine,” which took the Difference Engine’s number-crunching beyond a basic calculator into a full-fledged computer.
The “Notes” Strike a Chord
Today, we think of computing in terms of search, retrieval and media, but in the beginning, it was expanding basic calculations to make all possible. Babbage’s Analytical Engine was a monumental undertaking, and he needed help. Over a nine-month period, Lovelace feverishly translated Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea’s memoir on the Engine. But she did much more than just translate. Calling herself “an analyst and metaphysician,” she explained his material with insightful notes and details that described her concept of an algorithm — the first computer code in existence. In the translation, she sketched out how to use the Engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers. That Engine, which ran on punch-cards, became the basis for the design of the modern computer.
If Babbage was the force behind the first computer, Lovelace was the mastermind behind its software. At the time, it was difficult for women to write and publish scholarly works, much less on mathematical calculations, but she saw an opportunity with the translation and took it.
Her added notes resulted in an addendum nearly three times longer than his original work, forming a valuable goldmine for modern-day scientists. She understood the plans for the device as well as Babbage, but she was better at articulating its promise and potential to the world, using a creative eye to see the poetry in the numbers. She not only translated the treatise into English, but also theorized its far-reaching uses, like computer-generated music. She even articulated early objections to the idea of artificial intelligence, believing machines could process data fed into it, but nothing more.
Nearly a hundred years later, seminal computer scientist Alan Turing, intrigued by Lovelace’s argument against artificial intelligence — formalized her position as “Lady Lovelace’s Objection.” Even today, those who discuss big data or concept of The Rise of The Machines, cite her early ideas as foundation for debate, all without realizing the history of the woman behind it.
The Cost of a Legacy
Dubbed the “Princess of Parallelograms” due to her mathematical perspective, Lovelace enchanted numbers in the way her absent father crafted words. She saw the earth-shaking impact of machines on people’s lives, but her contributions didn’t come without cost. In order to raise money for the Engine, she developed a mathematically infallible system to win on horse-racing bets, Benjamin Woolley wrote in “The Bride of Science: Romance, Reason, and Byron’s Daughter.” These escapades didn’t go as planned, and when she racked up large gambling debts, she had to pawn her husband’s family jewels to pay off blackmailing bookies.
She also worried she would suffer from the same “madness” as her father. In her quest to stem that fate, she became addicted to prescription drugs including laudanum, opium and morphine. Rumors also swirled, though without hard proof, that she had romantic affairs with several partners, much like her profligate father.
Still, her ability to move in male circles, coupled with her outgoing personality and free spirit, helped her explore a brave new future. It was said her last words in life was, “Death makes the fragility of life delicious.” Known as the “Enchantress of Numbers,” she succumbed to cancer in 1852, at the tender age of 37, and was buried beside the father she never knew.
Finding a Place Today
Lovelace was undoubtedly smart. She made the most of her limited role in Victorian England, a time when women were confined to the home. But she used her enthusiasm for mathematics to bring Babbage’s Analytical Engine alive, leaving an indelible mark as the first programmer.
Her important contributions aren’t well-known, but momentum and interest on Lady Ada Lovelace are being rediscovered. In 1980, for example, the U.S. Defense Department created a “super computer language,” it dubbed the “Ada.” Last December, Google honored her 197th birthday with a special “doodle.” And not to be left out, in 1997, Hollywood brought her to the big screen in “Conceiving Ada.”
In the movie, produced by feminist filmmaker Lynn Hershman, Tilda Swinton plays Lovelace, who is brought back to present-day life by genetic engineering. For a more realistic story, a biopic, titled “Enchantress of Numbers,” is in the works, with Zooey Deschanel attached to star as the math genius.
But most intimately, Lovelace will be forever memorialized in her father’s poetry:
“Ada! Wilt thou by affection’s law,
My mind from the darken’d past withdraw?
Teach me to live in the future day…”
She had the mathematical chops to understand how basic computing technology worked, the artistic vision to see its potential and the grit to guide us all in how to live in the future day. ♦