Step Up To The Plate: With Ada Lovelace The Bride of Science

 

Ada Lovelace, brilliant daughter of Lord Byron, pioneered the computer, writes Nancy Alsop

‘That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal; as time will show.’ Ada Lovelace’s conviction in her own genius is striking. It is also wholly justified. In this, she follows closely within the mould of her father, the licentious Romantic poet Lord Byron, whose name itself today has become a byword for dashing, if often morally dubious, heroism. Her turn of phrase, though not inelegant, may not quite measure up to She Walks in Beauty, but her contribution to the world was, arguably, greater, more enduring and, in fact, seismic for mankind.

For while Byron was gallivanting, wrecking hearts all over Europe and abandoning his various children, Ada Lovelace, who was born Ada Gordon in 1815, was brought up under the care of her mother, Annabella Milbanke, whose union with Byron had been unhappy, but whose love for mathematics was both abiding and inspirational. She was determined that her only daughter should inherit her more scholarly ambitions as opposed to her father’s appetites. She could little have imagined how those formative lessons and her strict schedule of science, mathematics and logic might change the world. For while Ada’s intellectual capacity was in no doubt – she spent her childhood designing steam flying machines and studying the inventions of the Industrial Revolution – that she would go on to invent the prototype computer, arguably the device that has changed the world more than any other, was unprecedented.

Married at 19 to William King, who would later become Earl of Lovelace, and mother to three children, Ada did not allow Victorian convention to stand in the way of her intellect or ambition. Her love for mathematics was fostered under the tutelage of scientist Mary Somerville, the woman responsible for introducing her to Charles Babbage, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, acclaimed at the time for his work in creating gigantic clockwork calculating machines. The pair became fast friends, a cerebral infatuation that saw Babbage describe his friend as ‘The Enchantress of Numbers.’ For her part, Ada saw her continued study as imperative. ‘

Ada’s friendship with Babbage proved one of the most productive in history. Commissioned to translate an article on her friend’s Analytical Engine from Italian to English, Babbage was so impressed that he asked her to expand her writing on his machine. Ada’s extended writing not only explained the uses of Babbage’s machine – ‘ The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform’ – but devised complete programmes and even, presciently, wrote of how it may be used in the future to create music and manipulate symbols. These are, today, widely accepted as the first computer programmes written; for his part, Babbage professed to have never met a mathematician of greater ability. He was not the one to appreciate her genius; it was to Ada’s notes that Alan Turing referred when he created the computer that cracked the Enigma code in the 1940s and saved the Allied war effort.

Ada once said, ‘If you can’t give me poetry, can’t you give me poetical science?’ Posterity certainly grants her that, as well as a certain tragic poetry in the fact that both she and her father died at the young age of 36, he fighting in Greece, she of cancer.
Since 2009, there has been a dedicated Ada Lovelace Day, her wisdom and her visionary work rendering her a powerful symbol for modern women in technology; it is only left to ask what more she might have achieved had she lived. Like all the most brilliant people, she understood how little she knew: ‘ Understand well as I may, my comprehension can only be an infinitesimal fraction of all I want to understand.’

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