What an extraordinary woman Ada Lovelace was! She was born in 1815 to the poet Lord Byron and his wife Anne Millbanke, and was Byron’s only legitimate child. But her parents separated when she was only a month old and she never saw her father again. She was nonetheless inspired by him, and poetry ran like a thread through her life, in spite of her mother promoting her interest in mathematics “fearing that an interest in poetry would spoil her morals.”
Ada, later through marriage Countess of Lovelace, was a brilliant mathematician, but her place in the pantheon of great mathematicians results from her accolade as the first computer programmer in history. How did this come about, with electronic computers well over 100 years in the future? At the age of 17 she met mathematician, inventor and engineer Charles Babbage at a party, and he demonstrated his “difference engine” to her: this was a mechanical device for calculating tables of numbers. In 1843 she published a translation from the French about Babbage’s later invention (his “analytical engine” which never fully worked because engineers were unable at that time to produce parts to the tolerances he required, and funding was not made available) to which she added her own extensive notes, including the first ever published algorithm describing a sequence of operations to solve mathematical problems.
Ada continued to work closely with Babbage as he developed the analytical engine, a genuine mechanical precursor to modern computers. And it seems that she could see possibilities beyond mathematical computation: “The engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.” The idea that a machine could manipulate symbols and ideas, rather than just numbers, represents the step change from calculation to computation. It’s also rather fascinating that Ada was able to analyse the deficiencies of the analytical engine, and for this reason she is considered to be the first debugger as well as the first programmer!
She was not a mathematician in the conventional sense. For example, she went on to develop a model that would use mathematics to decode the neurological processes involved behind the evolution of feelings – a “calculus of the nervous system.”
She died of cancer at the age of 36. Had she lived twice as long, it’s fascinating to contemplate where her strange, inventive mind would have taken her. And how she would have loved to see her skill with algorithms put to real practical use in the first computers of the 20th century.