King, Ada Augusta, Countess of Lovelace
KING, ADA AUGUSTA, COUNTESS OF LOVELACE
(b. London, England, 10 December 1815; d. London, 27 November 1852),
Ada Augusta King, Countess of Lovelace, was an early-nineteenth-century mathematician and scientist who is generally remembered for her work with Charles Babbage. She translated an early description of Babbage’s machines, added an extensive note of her own to the description, and prepared a set of instructions for the machine. However, she had interests in science beyond calculation and illustrates how science engaged women in early Victorian Britain
Ada Lovelace, as she is commonly known, was the legitimate daughter of Lord Byron (George Gordon Byron) and Annabelle Milbanke. She was born eleven months after her parents married and five weeks before they separated. Her father left England shortly after her birth, never to return.
Lovelace was raised entirely by her mother, a strong-willed and tempestuous individual. She was schooled at home, as most girls were, and was taught the usual set of topics that were considered acceptable for young women: reading, grammar and spelling, arithmetic, music, geography, drawing, and French.
By the time she was an adolescent, Lovelace was starting to show signs that she could be as emotional as her father or as impetuous as her mother. After turning seventeen, she attempted to elope with her tutor. Friends intervened in the plot and returned Lovelace to her home. “There was, I hope, no real misconduct at the time,” wrote an acquaintance, “and an open scandal was prevented” (Sophia De Morgan, quoted in Stein, 1985, p. 36).
In the spring of 1834, Lovelace decided that she would undertake a serious study of science. She seems to have been motivated, at least in part, by her remorse over the attempted elopement. “I find that nothing but a very close and intense application of subjects of a scientific nature,” she wrote, “now seems at all to keep my imagination from
running wild” (to William King, March 9, 1834; Toole, 1998, pp. 57–58).
Lovelace began studying trigonometry and mathematical astronomy. She occasionally signed her letters, “Ever Yours Mathematically.” Her interest in science was encouraged by two important new friends: Charles Babbage and Mary Somerville. She had met Babbage at a party, held the previous June, where he had demonstrated a model of his first computing device, the Difference Engine. Lovelace was impressed with the engine and referred to it as “the gem of all mechanism” (to William King, 1 September 1834; Toole, 1998, p. 60).
Somerville, who was thirty-five years Lovelace’s senior, was England’s most prominent woman scientist. Supported by wealth from an early marriage and encouraged by a sympathetic husband, she had pursued the study of mathematics and astronomy. In 1831 she had published an English translation of Pierre-Simon de Laplace’s masterwork, Traité de mécanique céleste (Celestial Mechanics). To Lovelace, she played the role of mentor, correspondent, and occasional tutor.
In 1835 Lovelace married William King. During the first four years of her marriage, she gave birth to three children: Byron Noel King (1836), Anna Isabella King (1837), and Ralph Gordon Noel King (1839). Following the birth of Ralph, she decided to return to her study of science. She took instruction from Augustus De Morgan, a family friend and a professor at University College London. De Morgan led Lovelace through the basic concepts of calculus. Lovelace made steady progress in her study, but was impatient with the work. “I wish I went on quicker,” she wrote. “I wish a human head, or my head at all events, could take in a great deal more and a great deal more rapidly than is the case” (to Augustus De Morgan, 13 September 1840, Toole, pp. 112–123).
In 1840 Lovelace’s occasional correspondent, Babbage, traveled to Turin in order to give a series of talks on his computing machines. In addition to his Difference Engine, Babbage was working on the design of a more flexible device, which he called the Analytical Engine. Unlike his first machine, the Analytical Engine could be programmed, by encoding instructions on punched cards. His talks at Turin were summarized in an article by a military engineer named Luigi Menabrea, which was published in the journal Bibliothèque Universelle de Genève.
Lovelace learned about Menabrea’s article from Charles Wheatstone, a member of the Lovelace social circle. She began the translation without telling Babbage. When he finally learned of the effort, he asked why Lovelace had “not written an original paper on a subject with which she was so intimately acquainted?” According to Babbage, Lovelace replied that the idea “had not occurred to her.” Babbage then suggested that she write some notes that would illustrate the operation of the machine (Babbage, 1994, p. 102).
Working with guidance from Babbage, Lovelace prepared her manuscript. “We will terminate these notes,” she wrote, “by following, in detail, the steps through which the engine could compute the Numbers of Bernoulli, this being (as we shall deduce it) a rather complicated example of its powers” (notes to Menabrea translation as reprinted in Morrison and Morrison, 1961, p. 286). This detailed example is her principal scientific legacy. In modern terms, these steps are a computing program.
Lovelace’s partnership with Babbage ended badly. The two of them disagreed about their dealings with the publisher. They soon resolved their differences but never worked together again. Leaving Babbage behind, Lovelace was attracted to a wide array of subjects, not all of which could be considered scientific pursuits, even by the standards of the day. For the next eight years, Lovelace wandered through the various fields of science, reading German books, and corresponding with prominent English scientists. Her only substantial scientific contribution of this period was the review of a French book on meteorology and agriculture, which she wrote jointly with her husband.
In the last years of her life, Lovelace lived an increasingly unstable existence. She suffered from ill health, became emotionally attached to a man who was not her husband, and amassed large gambling debts.
Lovelace’s reputation has always been tied to Babbage. Her work was rediscovered in the 1940s, when the electronic computer brought a new assessment of Babbage’s work. In 1979 the U.S. Defense Department named its new computer language Ada, in her honor. Like her father, she had an unconventional personality, far more unconventional than her mentor, Somerville. That personality made it difficult for her to accept the role of translator or expositor, the two positions in science that were accessible to women at the time.
WORK BY KING
Translator (with notes). Menabrea, Luigi F. “Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage.” Bibliothèque Universelle de Genève, no. 82. Geneva: A. Cherbuliez, 1842. Available from http://www.fourmilab.ch/babbage/sketch.html. Reprinted in Charles Babbage on the Principles and Development of the Calculator and Other Seminal Writings, by Charles Babbage, edited by Philip Morrison and Emily Morrison, pp. 225–297. New York: Dover, 1961.
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Huskey, Velma, and Harry Huskey. “Lady Lovelace and Charles Babbage.” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 2 (1980): 299–329.
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Moore, Doris Langley-Levy. Ada, Countess of Lovelace: Byron’s Legitimate Daughter. London: J. Murray, 1977.
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———. Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers: Prophet of the Computer Age, a Pathway to the 21st Century. Mill Valley, CA: Strawberry; Sausalito, CA: Orders to Critical Connection, 1998.
Wade, Mary Dodson. Ada Byron Lovelace: The Lady and the Computer. New York: Dillon, 1994.
Woolley, Benjamin. The Bride of Science: Romance, Reason, and Byron’s Daughter. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999.
David A. Grier