“That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal, as time will show.”—Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace, aka Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, was born Augusta Ada Byron on December 10, 1815, in Middlesex, England and died on November 27, 1852, in London. She was an English mathematician who created a program for Charles Babbage’s prototype of a digital calculating machine, also known as the Analytical Engine, and has been dubbed the world’s first computer programmer. Below are 42 enchanting facts about the “Victorian Visionary.”
42. Famous Pedigree
Ada Lovelace came by her mathematical aptitude honestly. She was the only legitimate child of the famed romantic poet Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke, the Baroness of Wentworth. Her mother also had mathematical training, and Byron used to call her his “Princess of Parallelograms.”
41. Take Her and Go
Lord Byron was a well-known philanderer who couldn’t keep it in his pants and had numerous affairs. When Lovelace was barely a month old, he allegedly told his wife of his intention to continue an affair with an actress and told her to prepare to leave their home and to take their daughter with her. A few months later, Byron left England. He died in Greece when Ada was eight, having never seen her again.
40. Don’t Be Like Him
Lovelace’s mother was terrified that her daughter would develop Byron’s destructive “poetic temperament,” and raised her on a diet of mathematics and science. Both of these would have been highly unusual subjects for a girl of her class (or for a girl, period), but that didn’t matter to her mother.
39. Imagining the Airplane
At age 12, Ada came up with an idea for a flying machine by studying bird anatomy and what made them fly. From there, she started thinking about powered flight, writing to her mother about an idea for flying horse-shaped machine with a steam engine and wings that a person would ride. She was obviously way ahead of her time, as William Henson and John Stringfellow didn’t invent the aerial steam carriage for another 15 years (though, to be fair, none of their designs ever achieved practicality).
38. Keeping the Demons at Bay
Like her father, Ada seemed to have had some form of mental illness. When she was older, she claimed that math helped her and wrote to her husband that “nothing but a very close and intense application to subjects of a scientific nature now seems at all to keep my imagination from running wild, or to stop the void which seems to be left in my mind.” On the other hand, she wrote to her tutor’s wife that overloading on math had caused her to have a breakdown, so maybe not?
37. But Alas, She’s a Girl
Lovelace’s math tutor was Augustus De Morgan, a pioneer in the field of symbolic logic. He was impressed by what she could do, but there was one thing preventing her from achieving any status in mathematics—she was a girl. As he once explained, she had the potential to be “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence,” but only if she’d been a man. Apparently, he was worried that her body wouldn’t be able to cope with her overpowered brain and discouraged her mother from allowing her to continue with her studies.
36. Before There Was Ada
When she was 17, Ava Lovelace attended a party in London where her friend Mary Somerville introduced her to Charles Babbage, who would become one of the most influential people in her life. Lovelace was thoroughly captivated by his plans for the Difference Engine, and he invited her and her mother to his home to see a completed model. The two became friends, and worked together on his more ambitious project the Analytical Engine on and off until her death.
35. A Fond Nickname
Charles Babbage gave Lovelace the nickname “The Enchantress of Numbers” during their correspondence. Even after their work was done, they continued to correspond, and they did so right up until her death.
34. Music Meets Math
Other than math, Lovelace was also interested in music, and she found a way to combine the two. She composed music using numbers and apparently believed this would be a task that Babbage’s Analytic Engine could perform.
33. Just a Few Additions
Upon becoming Babbage’s protégé, Lovelace not only translated an article about Babbage’s Analytical Engine into English, but she added a few notes of her own, as well as corrections to Babbage’s calculations. By the time she was finished, her additions were three times as long as the original paper. In 1843, the paper was published in an English journal with the initials A.A.L., which must have had the scientific community scratching their heads trying to figure out who it was.
32. Not Quite a Lady
When Lovelace’s mother decided to educate her daughter, there was one key aspect of her education that she forgot. Lovelace somehow missed the memo on female decorum, and mirrored Byron in her enjoyment of stirring up Victorian society. One gossip rag at the time described her as “the most coarse and vulgar woman in England,” a title which her father would have admired.
31. Opposite of Trendy
Fashion wasn’t quite at the top of Lovelace’s priorities. In fact, she pretty much had no sense of style, and was dubbed, along with Babbage, as “two of the worst-dressed people of the 19th century.” Who’s got time for clothes when there are mathematical problems to solve?
30. Must Love Animals
Lovelace was an accomplished horsewoman, and her favorite horse was a wild stallion named Tam O’Shanter. She described him as “looking quite vicious in the stables,” and she especially loved his unruliness. Horses weren’t the only animal she had a fondness for. She also loved dogs and had several hounds, including one named Sirius who was particularly good at chasing chickens.
29. The Other Daughter
Lovelace had a half-sister by her father Byron whom she never knew. Allegra was the result of an affair with Claire Clairmont—Mary Shelley’s half-sister—and she was sent to live at a convent in Italy where she sadly died at age five.
28. Dealing With Data
Babbage’s design for the Analytical Engine was for a computing system that would use punch cards to perform multiplication and division and various other data tasks. It was Lovelace’s notes that outlined the steps that should be taken to make it solve math problems had it been built, making her, in effect, the first computer programmer.
27. But Was It Her?
Since she was a woman in a time when science was strictly the domain of men, it’s little surprise that many have tried to claim Lovelace could not have possibly written her computer programs—that it must have been Babbage. Fortunately for her legacy, we still have her correspondence back and forth with Babbage. In these letters, she suggested that the machine be used to create music. Since Babbage hated music, it can only be assumed that the idea came from Lovelace, revealing her intimate knowledge of the subject.
26. Rigging the Game
Lovelace was a terrible gambler, and allegedly once lost more than 3,200 pounds by betting on the wrong horse. One of the more nefarious uses of her mathematical skills was to attempt to develop a program that would predict the outcome of horse races. Unfortunately for her (and her pocketbook), it didn’t work.
25. Ahead of Her Time
There’s no doubt that Lovelace was forward-thinking, but she was so ahead of her time it took a century after her death before her contributions were recognized or appreciated. In 1953, B.V. Bowden’s book Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines republished Lovelace’s notes on the Analytical Engine, and she gained a brand-new audience in the new digital pioneers.
24. Ada’s Language
When the Department of Defense developed a new computer programming language to succeed the hundreds of other languages previously in use in the military, US Navy Commander Jack Cooper floated the idea of naming the language “Ada” in honor of Lovelace. In 1979, his suggestion received unanimous approval, and Ada is still used in countless applications today, such as aviation, health care, transportation, finances, and infrastructure.
23. Here’s to the Women in Science
The second Tuesday in October was designated by Suw Charman-Anderson as Ada Lovelace Day, a celebration of the accomplishments of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). The hope is that the annual celebration will encourage more women to go into science careers, and who knows—one of them could be the next Ada Lovelace!
22. Becoming a Countess
At age 19, Lovelace married William King, a man 11 years her senior. Three years later, when he became the Earl of Lovelace, she took the title “The Countess of Lovelace.” While he wasn’t exactly considered to be the brightest bulb in the bunch, he was a supportive husband who also loved horses, and the pair had three children together.
21. Lonely Childhood
Lovelace’s mother was hardly ever around, and Ada spent most of her childhood alone on her mother’s rented country estates with nobody but governesses, tutors, and her pet cat Mrs. Puff for company. No wonder she was awkward!
20. Come Take a Look!
As a child, Lovelace was tutored in math by a friend of her mother’s, Mary Somerville. Somerville was an expert in several different areas and wrote one of the 19th century’s bestselling science books, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences. Because her work spanned so many subjects, and because using the term “man of science” to describe a woman didn’t quite seem right, William Whewell coined the term “scientist” to describe her in his review.
19. In the Design Stage
Although the machine has yet to be built, Babbage’s blueprints for the Analytical Engine included 2,200 notations and 300 drawings. That ought to be enough to start with.
18. Painting the Picture
Annabella Byron wasn’t really what you’d call motherly, but because courts tended to favor the father in separations, she took great pains to give the appearance of being a caring mother to society. When Ada was in her grandmother’s care, Lady Byron would write letters to her “worrying” about Ada’s well-being, and included instructions to hold onto the letters as evidence in case she had to prove that she was a good mother.
17. No Thanks
Apparently, Ada’s mother thought that her grandchildren weren’t the only ones in need of instruction, and in the years 1843-44, she engaged William Benjamin Carpenter to both teach Ada’s children and to be Ada’s “moral instructor.” The only problem was that Carpenter wasn’t really all that moral, and he encouraged Lovelace to express any “suppressed feelings” that she might have for him, assuring her that his being married meant he wouldn’t act on them. Lovelace was smart enough not to fall for that line, and as soon as she realized that he was trying to start an affair with her, she stopped it dead in its tracks.
16. Poetical Science
Lovelace had a rather philosophical way of looking at science, drawing comparisons to nature. She saw the Analytical Engine as a machine that “weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard Loom weaves flowers and leaves.” She called this way of thinking “poetical science.”
15. Queen of Manipulation
Lady Byron was rather fond of (and good at) emotionally manipulating Ada, and was constantly threatening to die of one of her numerous medical problems. She also couldn’t resist putting her two cents into everything Ada did from raising her kids, to keeping house, and her behavior in society.
14. Dropping a Bombshell
Right around the same time that Ada finally built up the courage to write her mother a lengthy letter telling her about her future ambitions, her mother decided to drop a pretty big truth bomb on her daughter. She chose that moment to tell her that Byron had fathered a child with his half-sister. That kind of news would be enough to rattle anybody’s cage, and it caused Lovelace to doubt herself and temporarily give up mathematics.
13. Get Me Some Aspirin!
Even as a child, Lovelace suffered from various health ailments. At a young age, she contracted measles and scarlet fever, and at age eight, she got really bad headaches. Lovelace has her father to thank for that particular issue, as he too suffered from migraines until age 14.
12. Garbage in, Garbage out
Note G of Lovelace’s translation of the Analytical Engine paper is often referred to as “Lady Lovelace’s Objection.” What she was suggesting was that the data a computer puts out is only as good as the data put into it. In other words, if the data input is garbage, the data output will also be garbage—a concept still in use today.
One of Lord Byron’s biggest regrets in life was not knowing his daughter Ada. Mere moments before his death, he allegedly cried out, “Oh, my poor dear child!—my dear Ada! My God, could I have seen her! Give her my blessing.”
10. Hidden Portrait
In order to completely eradicate Byron from Lovelace’s life, Lady Byron covered his portrait in a green shroud and kept it away from her daughter until she was 20. You’d think she’d at least have tried to sneak a peek!
9. Icelandic Adventure
Lovelace’s son, Ralph King-Milbanke, had something of Byron’s wandering spirit, and at age 22, he spent a year in Iceland where he immersed himself in the study of Norse literature. King-Milbanke also spent some time in the Swiss Alps, making the first ascent of Aiguille Noire de Peuterey.
8. The Younger Byron
Byron Noel King was the eldest son of Lovelace and William King. A few years before her death, he joined the Royal Navy, but he deserted and his whereabouts were unknown for a decade. He was later found to have died at age 26, apparently working at a shipyard in England. Maybe he didn’t want to be an Earl?
7. Lady Anne Blunt
Of Lovelace’s three children, her daughter Anne Isabella Noel Blunt (named for her grandmother) was the most interesting. Her upbringing was traditionally Victorian, but at age 30 she married a poet, and that’s when her adventures began. She and her husband traveled through the Middle East, and she became the first Western woman to ride across the Arabian desert and into Saudi Arabia. She and her husband also had a strong interest in saving the Arabian Horse, and they became famed horse breeders with the stallions they brought back. Today, almost all purebred Arabians are from the same lines as those horses.
6. Scandalous Affair
Lovelace was rumored to have had an affair with John Crosse, son of Andrew Crosse, from 1844 until possibly her death—but nobody knows for sure, as she had Crosse destroy all of their correspondence when she died.
5. 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.
4. Love Affair
When Ada was 18, she fell in love and tried to elope with her tutor William Turner, but they didn’t get far. Turner’s relatives recognized Lovelace and got in touch with her mother. Annabella had her brought home, and she and her friends scrambled to cover up her wanton daughter’s actions before they blew up into a scandal.
3. Gone Too Soon
Tragically, Lovelace’s flame was extinguished on November 27, 1852, at the young age of 36, when she lost her battle with cancer. Had she lived, who knows what else she might have accomplished.
2. Read to Me
Charles Dickens and Ada Lovelace became acquainted through Babbage sometime in the 1830s. 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. A few months later, Lovelace succumbed to her illness.
1. Meeting in Death
While her mother was understandably bitter towards Lord Byron, Lovelace maintained an interest in her mysterious father throughout her life. At her request, she was buried next to him when she died.
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