By John Early
Cautioned about her father’s “most strange and dreadful history,” Ada, Countess Lovelace “declared that she could relate to her father’s defiance of authority.” Referring to his “misused genius,” she wrote to her mother, “If he has transmitted to me any portion of that genius, I would use it to bring out great truths and principles. I think he has bequeathed this task to me. I have this feeling strongly, and there is a pleasure attending it.” 1
So much for any suspicion of low self-esteem or false modesty. Ada, using the acronym A.A.L., was highborn, very intelligent, beautiful, tutored by the best and brightest, and she married well. On the downside, she had mood swings and fragile health, with periods of mysterious illness. A.A.L. inherited Lord Byron’s tendency to excess: extreme risk-taking like gambling on horses, lovers—that sort of thing. Sydney Padua, author of The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, believed her to have been bipolar. Nevertheless, she fulfilled the expected early Victorian marital duty of producing the requisite heir and a spare, with a mare in there somewhere.
A.A.L.’s mathematician mother discouraged reading poetry while encouraging studies in math. Ada must, however, have curled up with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Even at an early age, she was sufficiently insightful to ask the right questions. Her beloved father had defended the Luddites and the parts of the classical past that he liked; A.A.L., while cherishing his memory, was looking, with astonishingly clear eyes, into the far future.
Charles Babbage, father figure and mentor, was the inventor of both the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine. Regarding the latter, Isaacson again: “Babbage’s new idea, which he conceived in 1834, [my note: just in time for A.A.L.] was a general purpose computer that could carry out a variety of different operations based on programming instructions given to it. It could perform one task, then be used to switch and perform another. It could even tell itself to switch tasks—or alter its ‘pattern of action,’ as Babbage explained—based on its own interim calculations… He was one hundred years ahead of his time.” 2
Babbage was brilliant, but, like some inventive minds, not as good at people skills. For one thing, he failed to write it down for public consumption. Fortunately, when he was in Italy to address the Congress of Italian Scientists, one of his hearers was Captain Luigi Menabrea, a young military engineer. Menabrea, assisted by Babbage, published in French a detailed description of the machine.
And this is where A.A.L. comes in. Not unlike Wonder Woman. A.A.L. produced a blockbuster translation from the French, but with much much more. Really! With her “Notes by the Translator”, this was the sensation of 1843. If for no other reason, this translation is why Lytton Strachey should have included her in his book, Eminent Victorians. A.A.L. was the genius who pushed through and significantly improved upon, the work begun by Babbage.
Technically, Babbage was the first computer programmer; but, as Dr. Hannah Fry noted in her BBC program, A.A.L. was not only the first published computer programmer, but she understood how to unlock the full potential of a computing machine. She discerned that it could be far more than a calculator. In the future, she foresaw that music and art, to name two fields, could actually be produced, and that there was the potential to change the world.
I do not know if she was prescient enough to consider any Frankensteinian—to coin a word—aspects to these future discoveries, but we do know that A.A.L.—much more so that Babbage—was on the very brink of a new age of discovery. Theirs was a hugely fruitful joining together, a marriage of science and romanticism. Babbage had the hardware, but A.A.L. gave birth to the software.
Monetary success in this very worthwhile endeavor, unfortunately, was not to befall either one of them during their lifetimes.
Babbage and Lovelace had cemented the firm foundation of the house, but had not counted the rest of the cost. This was not really the fault of either of them. Simply put, the spirit of the times was not yet ready for them. Babbage was no fundraiser. While A.A.L. offered her considerable talents in that regard, she was rejected. Thereafter, possible depression, cash flow problems, risky behavior, including taking opiates to relieve her health problems, gambling and losing at horse racing—all led to a decline in her health. Ada died of uterine cancer at age 36, the same age Lord Byron had been when he died.
My own opinion is that she had far surpassed her father. Her last wish to be buried next to her father. Even A.A.L.’s formidable still-living mother could not stop that from happening.
Nearly one hundred years after her groundbreaking 1843 work, A.A.L was rediscovered by Alan Turing. Her foundational work was instrumental in furthering his own work and that of the famous women scientists at Bletchley Park. Ada, Countess Lovelace, helped win the war.
Fast-forward to 2018: air traffic controllers in the U.K. are using formulas begun by A.A.L.
What an extraordinary life. Ada was a savant and detail-oriented multitasker. Pardon my superlatives, but: What a woman!
1: Walter Isaacson, The Innovators, page 16.
2: Ibid., pages 22-23.