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Women in History

Ada Lovelacew - A Computing Visionary




Ada Lovelace (1815–52) is now regarded as one of the most important figures in the early history of the computer despite being relatively uncelebrated during her life. Born in the early 19th century, she had a fascination with science and mathematics that defied the expectations of her class and gender at the time. She was introduced at the age of 17 to inventor Charles Babbage, and her work ensured she would become one of the most important figures in the early history of the computer.

Lovelace is particularly intriguing because as a woman she was interested in what at the time was determined to be the domain of men, and her ideas and concepts stretched far into the insight of the potential of computers. She was born, Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace, on 10 December 1815. The only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron and his wife Anne Isabella Milbanke, However, Byron only ever knew his daughter as a baby. Annabella became tired of her husband's affairs and the horrendous financial strains they had endured throughout their marriage and left Byron early one morning in January 1816 to return to her parents, taking her daughter with her. Byron never saw his wife or daughter again.

Ada’s fascination in maths and science grew from childhood and was encouraged by her mother, who was terrified that Ada might grow up and be destroyed by an over-active imagination which is how she perceived Lord Byron. She was always creating and even conceived the idea of building a steam-powered flying machine and spent many hours trying to work out how it might operate. Her mother was incredibly influential in society at the time, being one of the wealthiest women in Britain and had the influence and power to ensure Ada did exactly as she pleased. But it was essentially still a conventional middle-class upbringing and in 1835, with her mother’s approval, Ada married a pleasant but not especially intellectually gifted young aristocrat, Lord William King, who in due course inherited the title of Earl of Lovelace. William was devoted to Ada and admired her greatly. He once reportedly remarked to her, “what a General you would make”.

However, just as Ada married the man approved of by her mother, she had also met another man who made a huge impression on her, on both a personal and intellectual level, Charles Babbage.

Much older than Ada, she was clearly fascinated by Babbage and his plans to what he called the Difference Engine It was essentially a cogwheel calculating machine. As the daughter of a famous poet, Ada was something of a celebrity in social circles and it was surely flattering to Babbage, that she was interested in his work and he invited Lady Byron and Ada to visit him to see a completed model he had made of his Difference Engine. This was a working model one-seventh of the full-size machine, the whole of which Babbage never managed to complete. Impressed by the model, Ada became firm friends with Babbage, but to maintain convention meetings were only ever usually carried out in the presence of Lady Byron. In 1834, Babbage began working on an even more ambitious machine than the Difference Engine, which he called the Analytical Engine. This was essentially a general-purpose programmable digital computer that used cogwheels operating in base 10 (our everyday mathematical numbering system that uses decimal numbers), rather than electronic components operating in binary. Otherwise, it featured most of the logical components of a modern electronic computer. These included memory, storage and programming, for which Babbage borrowed the idea of using punched cards from the programmable Jacquard Loom (a programmable loom first demonstrated in 1801, which could weave any pattern). The Analytical Engine even featured security measures to warn the machine’s operator when they made a mistake.

Lovelace was even more fascinated by the Analytical Engine than by the Difference Engine and eagerly agreed to translate notes from his French engineer. Although neither machine was ever completed and Babbage’s plans for the Analytical Engine never got beyond the design stage, they do include 2,200 notations and about 300 design drawings.

For a long time, many modern commentators – typically male computer scientists – were dubious about the level of Lovelace’s contribution to Babbage’s work, regarding her at worse a nuisance, or at best merely someone who proved helpful in noting down his efforts. Babbage himself called Lovelace his ‘interpretess’ – clearly that was the extent to which he regarded her contribution.

However, more recent modern research has made it clear that Lovelace’s contribution to the thinking at the heart of the prehistory of the computer was enormous. In 1843 she translated a paper on the Analytical Engine from French, written by an Italian scientist and future prime minister of Italy, Luigi Federico Menabrea. Lovelace went far beyond merely translating this paper – she wrote around 20,000 words of her own notes that discussed the Analytical Engine’s potential. Her translation and notes were subsequently published under her own initials, AAL. While it is clear that Babbage helped Lovelace with some of the technical material in her notes, theories that Babbage wrote most of the notes himself have now been discredited. This is partly because linguistic analysis shows that the voice the notes were written in was very much Ada’s, but also because Ada clearly had insights into the Analytical Engine that Babbage seemingly lacked. Babbage saw the Analytical Engine as a brilliant machine for doing mathematics, which it certainly was. However, there is no clear evidence that he ever saw it as anything more. Lovelace’s notes reveal that she regarded the machine as something that could not only enact calculations, but could also carry out all kinds of processes that could govern all kinds of applications. She famously remarked that the “Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard Loom weaves flowers and leaves”. This brilliant insight into what the Jacquard Loom could do is an important part of Lovelace’s contribution towards the early history of the computer.

Ada died from cancer, most likely of the uterus when she was only 36 in 1852. It was the same age at which her father had died. She now lies next to him in the sealed Byron family tomb in St Mary Magdalene Church, Hucknall, in Nottinghamshire.

Lovelace’s reputation today as a pioneer in the thinking of the early history of the computer is unquestionably deserved. Her fascination of the algorithms that the Analytical Engine might calculate, led her to write a long letter to Babbage suggesting that he let her help manage all the aspects of the Analytical Engine build project that required the influencing of important people, something that a woman of her standing was more than capable of gathering. But he rejected her offer and it is unknown why. Perhaps he felt uncomfortable about letting Ada be involved in the project itself, women at the time were still regarded very much as inferior minds when it came to maths and science and he may have felt that it would only trivialize the project. It was indeed a tragedy that the project was never completed in their lifetime.It was however in 2002 when a team at the London Science Museum working under Doron Swade’s leadership completed the fully working full-size calculation element of the Difference Engine. The project took 17 years to complete and is a most impressive sight: a magnificent piece of pioneering 19th-century engineering realised in the 20th century.

Today, Ada is quite rightly seen as an icon of feminist scientific achievement, a heroine of the mind, and one of the earliest visionaries in the early history of the computer.



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elocal Digital Edition – March 2023 (#263)

elocal Digital Edition
March 2023 (#263)


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