Meet the "Mother of Programming", Ada Lovelace

Ada overcame a tragic and lonely childhood to carve her place in history as world's first computer programmer.
Christopher McFadden
Ada Lovelace and the Analytical Engine1, 2

Ada Lovelace, or Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace to give her her official title, was a trailblazing English mathematician who many people agree was the world's first computer programmer. Today she is fondly remembered as the "Mother of Programming".

She was the only legitimate daughter of the famed English poet Lord George Byron, who died in Greece when Ada was just eight years old.

Her written instructions for Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine mark a key moment in the history of the development of modern computers. Today, she is considered a true visionary who was leagues ahead of her time. 

Here we'll take a quick look at this amazing woman's life and reveal her enormous impact on the world. 

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

ada lovelace programmer
Source: Aristocrat/Flickr

Ada was from a stately but broken home

The woman who wrote the first computer program was born Augusta Ada Byron in London on the 10th December 1815. But her early life would not be happy. Her mother, Lady Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron, separated from her father only a few weeks after she was born, and Lord Byron left England a few months later, never to return. He died in Greece when Ada was eight, and she never really got to know him.

Unusually for an aristocratic girl of the time, Ada was taught mathematics and science - her mother hoped that studying the sciences would prevent Ada from developing her father's mental illness and unpredictable temperament. According to some sources, she was also forced to lie still for extended periods of time to help her develop self-control.

Ada Lovelace Enchantress of Numbers
Source: Helen Harrop/Flickr

Typical of the time, all of her tuition was at home by private teachers but she also self-studied and read voraciously. Ada showed an early talent for both math and languages, and received instruction from Mary Somerville, a Scottish astronomer and mathematician, and one of the first women to be admitted into the Royal Astronomical Society; as well as Augustus De Morgan, the first professor of mathematics at the University of London.

Ada first met Charles Babbage, a mathematician and inventor, at around the age of 17. The pair became friends, with the much older Babbage acting as a mentor.

At the age of 19, on the 8th July 1835, she married William King (the 8th Baron King) on the 8th July 1835. When he was elevated to the status of an Earl in 1838, Lovelace became Countess of Lovelace. By all reports, their marriage was a happy one, and King supported his wife's academic interests — also unusual for the time. The couple shared a love of horses and had three children together. 

Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace

In 1843, Ada was asked by Charles Babbage to translate an article on Babbage's analytical engine that had been written by Italian engineer Luigi Federico Menabrea for a Swiss journal. 

She duly translated the original French text into English but also added her own thoughts and ideas on the machine, and made some corrections to Babbage's original calculations that were included in the document. Her notes ended up being three times longer than the original article.

Ada quickly realized that the potential for the machine far exceeded simple calculations. In her notes, she shows that it could be used to calculate Bernoulli Numbers, but also described how codes could be created to allow the device to handle letters and symbols as well as numbers.

She also discussed a way for the engine to able to repeat a series of instructions, a process used by computer programers today, and  known as looping.  

The Analytical Engine does not occupy common ground with mere 'calculating machines.' It holds a position wholly its own, and the considerations it suggests are more interesting in their nature." - Ada Lovelace.

Lovelace, in her notes, demonstrated using diagrams ways for the engine to be used to make computations for practical and scientific purposes. Using her musical background she also surmised that, one day, such a machine could be used to compose music.

Ada Love Charles Babbage Analytical Engine
Source: Bruno Barral (ByB)/Wikimedia Commons

Sadly, Lovelace's article attracted little attention when she was alive, but she would continue to correspond with Babbage right up until her death. 

Despite all her hard work, Babbage's Analytical Engine was never realized. Her work would lay dormant for around one hundred years, until its significance was once again realized during the age of computers.

How did Ada Lovelace die?

Ada Lovelace just before her death
Ada Lovelace at a piano in 1852. Source: Henry Phillips/Wikimedia Commons

Lovelace suffered from a bout of cholera in 1837, after which her health declined. On November 27th, 1852 she lost her battle with uterine cancer and died at the far too young age of 36. Her body was interred in the graveyard of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Nottingham, England.

A tragic end to an amazing lady. As Lao Tzu once said, "The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.”

The world had lost a true visionary in Ada and an extraordinary woman who was dubbed the "Enchantress of Numbers" by her good friend Charles Babbage. Ada preferred to refer to herself as an analyst and metaphysician. Today, she is remembered as one of the first people to realize the potential of computers and computing.