Biography of Augusta Ada Lovelace, Nee Byron. Mathematical Genius Credited as the First Computer Programmer.
Daughter of the poet Byron, Ada is known as a mathematical genius through her work with Babbage. But her intelligence didn’t prevent her losing a fortune on the horses.
Born on 10th December 1815, Augusta Ada Byron was the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron and his wife, Annabella Milbanke. But she was never to know her father because Lord and Lady Byron separated when Ada was just five weeks old.
During the ensuing judicial separation proceedings, Annabella was granted sole custody of the baby and brought her up at the Milbanke ancestral home in Kirkby Mallory, Leicestershire.
Ada Byron’s Gift for Mathematics
Bentley’s Miscellany of 1853 described Ada as resembling her father “… only in genius, and in the generosity and nobleness of feeling, which shone out from the midst of all the madness of her father’s mind,” and she also “… inherited whatever was grand and good in his character.” She shared his love of the sea and was referred to by him as “Ada, sole daughter of my house and heart.”
Encouraged by her mother to study the sciences and mathematics rather than literature, possibly through a fear of her taking up poetry like her father, young Ada excelled at all things metaphysical and mathematical.
One of her teachers was the renowned mathematician Mary Somerville (after whom Somerville College, Oxford is named) and it was probably through her that she was first introduced to Charles Babbage.
Augusta Ada Byron Becomes the Countess of Lovelace
Ada married, in July 1835, William King, eighth Baron of Ockham, who became the Earl of Lovelace in 1838. By him she had three children: Byron Noel in 1836, Anne Isabella in 1837 and Ralph Gordon in 1839.
It seems she was not as constrained as some Victorian wives as she was able to pursue her interests in the sciences and mixed socially with Babbage and other worthies like Sir Charles Wheatstone and Charles Dickens.
Her claim to fame arose in 1843. Babbage had been working on the concept of an analytical engine. His thoughts and implementation ideas were written down in an article by General Menabrea (who later became the Prime Minister of Italy). It was Ada who translated Menabrea’s work into English and added notes to it, some of which are regarded to be the earliest computer program. This translation and her notes were published in September 1843.
The Darker Side of Lovelace and Babbage’s Relationship
She was quite far seeing in her understanding of Babbage’s concept and wrote that the Analytical Engine “.. weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.a” Mrs Andrew Crosse, writing in Bentley’s Miscellany in 1891 said that Babbage himself recognised that Countess Lovelace’s additional notes to the article “… were a complete demonstration that the operations of analysis are capable of being executed by machinery.”
However, there was a darker side to the relationship between Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. They became obsessed with trying to devise an infallible system for betting on horses. This obsession led to heavy gambling losses. According to the Limerick Chronicle of 1851, Lady Lovelace was so convinced that one particular horse would win the Derby, she bet £20,000 on it. The horse lost.
Lady Lovelace Discovers Byron’s Poetry
By 1851, Ada had begun to show symptoms of the uterine cancer that was to ultimately kill her. On a visit to Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire, (which had originally been owned by the Byron family) in that year, the Abbey’s then owner, Colonel Wildman, read a few lines of Byron’s poetry to her. Entranced by it, she asked who had written them. The Colonel pointed to a portrait of her father hanging on the wall.
This news was a real eye opener for her and she confessed to the Colonel that she had no idea her father had written such things. Her mother, it seems, had deliberately withheld any information about her father from her. From then on, Ada began to study the works and life of the father she had never met.
The Death and Burial of the First Computer Programmer
During her final illness, Ada contacted Col. Wildman asking if she could be buried next to her father in the Byron vault at Hucknall Torkard church. She wrote “…. Yes, I will be buried there; not where my mother can join me, but by the side of him who so loved me, and whom I was not taught to love.”
The Countess of Lovelace, Ada Byron, finally succumbed to cancer in November 1852 and was buried, as she had wished, in the Byron vault next to her father’s remains on 3rd December 1852. She is commemorated with a plaque on the wall of the church. She is also immortalised in the name of a computer programming language devised in 1979 and called ADA in her honour.