Inventors in History: Ada Lovelace

While reviewing the Lab’s numerous buildings, conference rooms, utility rooms, and machines that proudly bear the names of the greatest scientists and inventors, I was struck by the fact that they are mostly men. In fact, there are only two representatives of the fairer sex in the whole lot: Marie Sklodowska-Curie (check out her blog post) and Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. Nevertheless, Ms. Lovelace, as she is known today, more than makes up for this wide gender disparity with her impressive technical resume. Believe it or not, this elegant English noble is the spiritual progenitor of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and the legion of programmers that lead our world today. Ms. Lovelace is none other than the world’s first computer programmer!

With a zeal that so commonly characterizes her modern day peers, Lovelace saw past the limited capabilities of the “computers” of her day (i.e. calculations and number crunching) to formulate the first ever algorithm intended for a machine. How did this happen? Well, actually it was not uncommon for nobles in early 19th century society to dabble in botany, geology, astronomy, or mathematics in their free time. What was uncommon was for a female to be invested in such pursuits. So, to truly understand Ms. Lovelace’s momentous achievement we must examine the unusual circumstances of her childhood.

Augusta Ada Byron was born on December 10th, 1815 in London to the famous poet Lord George Gordon Byron and his wife Anne Isabella “Anabella” Milbanke. However, despite her family’s prestige, Ada’s childhood was anything but calm and stable. Less than one month later, Annabella moved out of the house and moved in with her parents, taking baby Ada with her. The acrimonious divorce of her parents had a significant effect on Ada, primarily because Lady Byron would habitually reference her ex-husband’s immoral behaviors. In fact, Lady Byron was convinced that Lord Byron was insane, and would inevitably pass his insanity to his daughter. As a result, a rigorous education to counteract the inherent madness in Ada was a top priority for her mother. Predictably, this atmosphere of paranoia led to Ada’s lifelong preoccupation with finding a way to model the functions of the brain to determine the sources of thoughts and feelings.

As a prominent member of society, Lady Byron was able to secure the best tutors for her daughter, including the logician Augustus De Morgan. The most important influence on Ada’s formative years was undoubtedly Mary Somerville, a mathematical astronomer, who showed Ada that women could contribute to science as much as men. Somerville also introduced Ada to one of the most important figures in her life, Charles Babbage.

Charles Babbage is widely credited with inventing the first computer in the form of his rudimentary Difference Engine and “general-purpose” Analytical Engine. Despite the fact that neither machine was constructed during Babbage’s lifetime, his designs have since proven capable of adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, and even computing high order polynomial functions.

Modern construction, Difference Engine No. 2, 2005 - Credit: Doron Swade

Babbage’s first generation of Engine was called the Difference Engine (a great conceptual graphic on how it works can be found here). Essentially glorified calculators, they were envisioned as decimal digital machines. This means that the Engine used a base 10 number system (decimal) with the familiar numbers “0” through “9” on separate gear wheels. There were no intermediate values between the 10 numbers, thus the “digital” moniker. However, this first machine was an engineer’s nightmare comprised of 25,000 parts and weighing in at close to fifteen tons. It is not surprising that the government soon cut funding to the project and the machine never saw the light of day.

Babbage’s next machine, the Analytical Engine, was far more versatile than its predecessor and was more akin to the modern digital computer. The most noticeable improvement was the creation of two separate mechanisms; the “store” housed all of the numbers and the “mill” was where the arithmetic figuring was carried out. This structure is similar to the modern day segregation of a computer’s memory (“store”) and central processor (“mill”). Babbage and Lovelace noticed that the popular Jacquard loom could create complex weaving patterns in textiles by feeding the machine a specialized punch card. Emulating this basic concept, the Analytical Engine could be tasked to perform complex operations with the input of punched cards.

A cool tie-in back to Intellectual Ventures is that the only complete working Babbage engine (on display at the Science Museum in London) was funded by Nathan Myhrvold (IV’s Founder) in 2002. Nathan also commissioned a duplicate engine and printer for himself that is currently on lease to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

Design Drawing for Analytical Engine

In 1841, at a seminar in Turin, Italy, Babbage presented his plans for the Analytical Engine and reported its developments.  Shortly after the seminar, Italian mathematician, Luigi Menabrea, wrote a summary about Babbage’s Analytical Engine and published his memoir in French. Babbage tasked Ada to translate Menabrea’s summary into English and encouraged her to add her own notes. Ada’s translation and copious notes eventually produced a report three times as long as the memoir itself, her crowning achievement.  In particular, the last section of her notes described a method to calculate Bernoulli numbers using the Engine’s arithmetic capabilities. Through this single manipulation, Lovelace created the first piece of software nearly 100 years before the word software was even invented.

Like all great events in history, there is considerable controversy over whether Ada Lovelace actually formulated the algorithms she is credited for, or whether they were originally Babbage’s inventions. Nevertheless, it is generally accepted that Lovelace’s notes were invaluable in providing a comprehensive description and explanation for Babbage’s Engines. It is clear that Lovelace was a true visionary in her predictions that future versions of the Analytical Engine might be capable of composing “elaborate and scientific pieces of music,” or be utilized for scientific research. As a result, she is lovingly referred to as the “prophet of the computer age”. Her influence persists to this day with various Lovelace awards honoring female scientists in the UK and even an Ada Lovelace Day. Moreover, the United States Department of Defense named their programming language ADA in her memory.

Unfortunately, Ada found herself embroiled in a series of controversies towards the end of her life. Among them was a heavy gambling addiction. In true “inventor” fashion, Ada took this preoccupation several steps further by organizing a syndicate and attempting to create a mathematical model for betting. Both of these ventures ultimately failed and Ada found herself deeply in debt. Ada’s bright flame was cut short when she passed away the next year on November 27, 1852 at the age of thirty-six.

If you want to learn more about Ada Lovelace’s life and her work with Babbage’s Engines, visit Wikipedia, the Computer History Museum, and the San Diego Supercomputer Center websites. You can also get access to many of the primary source documents and even an MIT Analytical Engine emulator (you can write your own programs!) on Forumilab’s site.

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