Ada Lovelace is a 19th-century aristocrat who just so happens to be one of the first computer geniuses. However, she came from a troubling lineage. As the daughter of the infamous Lord Byron, she was born into scandal that continued to haunt her scientific career. Uncover 42 shocking facts about Ada Lovelace, the gentlewoman genius of the 1800s.
1. They Don’t Make a Hallmark Card for This
“Ada Lovelace” was born as Augusta Ada Byron in December, 1815 to the notorious poet Lord Byron. Her father was incredibly disappointed at her birth. He had expected a “glorious boy” and actually cried, ““Oh! What an implement of torture have I acquired in you!”
2. Four Is a Crowd
Imagine evicting your own infant daughter. Well, that’s what Lord Byron did when Ada was just a few weeks old. Using his legendary way with words, Byron wrote to his wife Lady Annabella Byron and said that she and their daughter needed to leave his house ASAP on account of his plans to pursue an actress. After all, it’s hard to get stage stars “in the mood” with your wife and crying baby in the house.
3. Who’s Your Daddy?
Lovelace would not be shown a picture of her father until she was 20 years old. All things considered, can you blame her mother?
4. Count Your Way to Mental Health
Lovelace owes her robust education in science and math to her own math prodigy mother Lady Annabella Bryon, as well as to said mother’s debilitating fear that Ada would inherit her poetic father’s “insanity” if the girl didn’t have honest and non-romantic pursuits. I guess this meant math, the least sexy subject known to humanity.
5. See Ya Never!
Lord Byron left England just months after Lovelace was born. He died when she was 8, having never seen his daughter again.
However, one of Lord Byron’s biggest regrets in life was not knowing his daughter. Mere moments before his death at the young age of 36, he allegedly cried out, “Oh, my poor dear child!—my dear Ada! My God, could I have seen her! Give her my blessing.”
7. Horse Girl
One of Lovelace’s earliest blueprints was for a horse-powered flying machine. The 12-year-old Ada told her mother about a plan to “make a thing in the form of a horse with a steam engine in the inside so contrived as to move an immense pair of wings, fixed on the outside of the horse.” Look, every girl has a Pegasus phase, okay?
8. A Picture Says a Thousand Numbers
Thank Lovelace for reaction gifs! She is one of the first voices to consider that computers could do more than just crunch numbers. In her mind, there was also a possibility they could digest writing, music, pictures, and even sound.
9. The Family Jewels Are a Small Price to Pay for a Bit of Fun
You’re never too smart for a gambling problem. Lovelace had a difficult time controlling herself at the horse tracks; she once lost £3,200 pounds (a fortune in her time) on a single race. At one point things got so bad, Lovelace sold her family diamonds just to keep afloat.
10. Take a Chance on Science
Lovelace once even teamed up with a bunch of con artists in an attempt to develop a “predictor” for horse races. Reports exist of Lovelace exchanging a special book once a week with her scientific mentor, Charles Babbage, which may have contained notes for a program that could fix the races.
11. All Around Me Are Familiar Faces
Lovelace was not considered a great beauty of her age, but at least she looked liker her father. An old friend of Lord Byron described the female programmer as “a large, coarse-skinned young woman but with something of my friend’s features, particularly the mouth.”
12. Down for the Count
Brains don’t always equal brawn. Case in point: Lovelace spent much of her youth sick and disabled. She suffered from serious migraines that affected her vision, and was paralyzed from about age 14 to 16 after a terrible fight with measles. She had to walk with a crutch for years.
13. Lady Tinkerbell
Lovelace went by the name of “Lady Fairy” to her intellectual partner, Charles Babbage. This was perhaps due to her delicate health, and because her early inventions reflected her obsession with flight.
14. The Wings Beneath My Wind
The young Lovelace was so obsessed with flight and wings that she wrote a book called Flyology. Her work detailed the anatomy of different kinds of birds in all their varied size and glory.
15. More Than an Okay Face
As a 17-year-old debutante at the Court, Ada was actually quite popular. An unconventional “belle” for her age, she drew attention not for her brilliant looks but for her bright mind.
16. Thanks for the Name Drop
At the age of 20, the unconventional Ada made the conventional 19th-century move to marry respectably. In 1835, the young scholar wed William King-Noel, the Earl of Lovelace. He was 10 years her senior. In addition to several really fine manors, Lord Lovelace gave Ada the name by which she would be known to the public for centuries after.
17. Not Another Byronic Hero
Lovelace’s first child, Byron, was born a year into her marriage and is named after his scandalous maternal grandfather. Unfortunately, Byron King-Noel also followed gramps by dying young at the age of 26. Leaving no children, the real heir to the Byronic legacy became Ada’s younger son, Ralph.
18. She Loves Me Not
Ironically, Lovelace’s “moral instructor” once encouraged her to cheat on her husband. In 1843, William Benjamin Carpenter was entrusted to educate Lovelace and her children. Carpenter himself was married, and tried to get Lovelace to at least confess to mutual feelings toward him; he argued that his own marital status would somehow prevent their conduct from being “unbecoming.” Nice try, Willie. Lovelace quickly cut things off.
19. Not Quite a Lady
Though she grew up in luxury, Lovelace somehow missed the memo on female decorum. One gossip rag at the time described her as “the most coarse and vulgar woman in England,” a title that her libertine father probably would have admired.
20. Burn After Kissing?
Lovelace’s life was plagued with rumors of infidelity. Most notably, she was accused of having inappropriate relations with John Crosse, the son of one of her colleagues. No one knows for sure if they consummated their relationship, but after Lovelace died, Crosse destroyed all their correspondence as part of an ambiguous legal deal. Adding fuel to the fire, she even bequeathed him all the heirlooms her father had given her.
21. What Is Science Without Love?
Lovelace is an early voice in scientific humanities. As she studied differential calculus (the most exciting and inspirational of the math, I am told), she began to integrate the logic of science and poetry together. To her, metaphysical philosophy was just as important to researching and understanding, as she called it, “the unseen world around us.”
22. Mind Mapping
Among Lovelace’s many imagined (but never actualized) inventions is “a calculus of the nervous system.” She once wrote to a friend, in layman’s terms, that she wanted to make a model for how the brain gives birth to emotions—an actual mind map. I wish my DMs were so rich with thought.
23. Don’t Do as I Do
Although Lord Byron was absent from his daughter’s life, he was a self-aware enough parent to hope Ada wouldn’t take after him in any way. To quote the poet himself about a report on his daughter: “I am told she is clever—I hope not! But above all, I hope she is not poetical; the price paid for such advantages, if advantages they be, is such as to make me pray that my child may escape them.”
24. Ada Enchanted
One of Charles Babbage’s other nicknames for Lovelace was “The Enchantress of Numbers.” This moniker was in honor of her rich analytic skills.
25. The First in Theory
Lovelace is credited with the first published algorithm ever programmed specifically for computer implementation. However, it was only ever theoretical, and never put to the test in real life.
26. Made for RAM, Not the Runway
Contrary to those ladylike engravings of Lovelace, our favorite mathematician was not a fashionista. In fact, she had an infamously drab sense of fashion. Even her housekeeper once described her as “not so well dressed as her maid.” People often couldn’t believe the too-glam-for-his-own-good Lord Byron fathered such a dull child.
27. Ready for Their Close-Up
Did you get a British passport made any time after November 2015? Flip to page 46 and 47 to enjoy your illustration of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. These computer nerd mugs have graced every UK passport since.
28. You Can Count on Ada
In the 1970s, the US Department of Defense paid tribute to Ada Lovelace in their programming language. The “Ada” system is still used to facilitate aircraft flights, health care, financial operations, and all sorts of infrastructures from all around the world—and in outer space missions.
29. Mommy’s Little Deviants
All three of Lovelace’s children inherited the family eccentric streak. Her eldest son, Byron, ran away from home to the high seas and worked as a carpenter. Her younger son Ralph was also an adventurer who trekked Iceland as a mountain climber.
30. Horse Girls Die Hard
Even her so-called “demure” daughter Anne married a poet and became the first European woman to cross the Arabian desert. Anne also went into the horse breeding business, and 95% of Arabian stallions in Europe today are descendants of the horses brought back from her travels.
31. Can I Copy Your Notes?
Scientific communication is hard. It’s one thing to have great ideas, but it’s another to express them well. Thank goodness Charles Babbage had Lovelace to translate an Italian article that described his own Analytical Engine. In fact, her appended notes were three times longer than the actual article! Due in part to these creative additions, Lovelace went down in history as the world’s first computer programmer.
32. No Fan of Sci-Fi
Lovelace did not believe in artificial intelligence—sorry, Isaac Asimov. In her own words, “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths.” To be honest, that’s a pretty sound argument. It won’t protect her in the robot uprising, but it makes sense!
33. Is She Really?
Recent scholarship has been more hesitant to crown Lovelace as the first-ever computer programmer. Some evaluate Lovelace’s writing as “more a reflection of the mathematical uncertainty of the author…than a blueprint for a scientific development.” In other words, her notes translated scientific jumbo rather than actively influencing it.
34. Opium Haze
Lovelace spent most of her adult life on laudanum (an opium tincture) for her various ailments, and she was seriously addicted. If she didn’t have it, she’d experience withdrawal symptoms such as extreme stress and itchy eyeballs. As soon as she was able to have some, the symptoms relaxed, and she was basically back to normal.
35. Extra Credit
At the age of 18, Lovelace had an affair with her tutor, William Turner (Héloïse and Abelard, anybody?). They even schemed to ditch the books and elope. Unfortunately, her beau’s family recognized the infamous daughter of Lord Byron and squealed to her mom Lady Byron. To avoid a scandal, the ugly sojourn was covered up.
36. The Family that Sticks Together Is Never Surprised
In 1841, Lady Byron informed Ada that she and her cousin Medora were, in fact, half-siblings. To put it simply (and grossly), Lovelace’s scandalous father might have had an affair with his own half-sister.
By our standards, Lovelace underacted to this incestuous revelation, writing to her mom, “I am not in the least astonished. In fact, you merely confirm what I have for years and years felt scarcely a doubt about but should have considered it most improper in me to hint to you that I in any way suspected.” In short, she was not surprised. But…how??
37. Honor Thy Father…in Everything
When confronted with her late father’s alleged incest with his own half-sister, Lovelace put all the blame on Medora’s mother, Augusta Leigh. She wrote, “I fear she is more inherently wicked than he [Byron] ever was.” Even smart people have double standards, I guess.
38. A Role Model in Every Way
On 27 November 1852, Ada Byron Lovelace died at the same age of her absent and infamous father Lord Byron. She was just 36, and passed from uterine cancer, which was probably made worse by the common practice of bloodletting. You can always trust a Byron to go out dramatically.
39. Literature Is the Best Medicine
Lovelace had famous friends outside the science world. Most notably, her buddy Charles Dickens was one of the few souls allowed to read to her by her deathbed. While she was laid up in bed, slowly dying, she requested that he read her the scene from his novel Dombey and Son where little Paul Dombey dies.
40. Paging Nurse Nightingale
Lovelace was also close friends with famous nurse Florence Nightingale…who ideally should have been the one beside the sickly Lovelace, but still.
41. Some Things Can’t Be Forgiven
For mysterious reasons, Ada’s husband William abandoned his wife’s deathbed. She had confessed something to Lord Lovelace that led him to stalk out and never return after August 30, 1852. Historians can suppose it was about her many infidelities, or the truth about her sister Medora. However, we may never know.
42. Daddy’s Girl to the End
At her request, Lovelace was buried next to her father Lord Byron at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Nottinghamshire. Yes, the adulterous (and possibly incestuous) father who kicked her out as a baby. Absence makes the heart grow more idealistic about long dead daddies, I guess.