It's my pleasure to welcome back Francesca Blanch Serrat, in the esteemed company of Ada Lovelace!
Ada Lovelace: the First Computer Programmer
Ada Lovelace was born a celebrity. The only legitimate daughter of the mad, bad and dangerous-to-know Lord Byron and his wife, Annabella Milbanke, came into the world on December 10, 1815. The child was baptised Augusta Ada— yes, like Augusta Leigh, Byron’s half-sister and alleged lover! Only a month and five days later, Lady Byron left her husband and moved, with Ada, to her parents’ house in Seaham. The reasons behind the separation soon became the favourite topic of conversation in England. Whether the supposed accusations of immoral behaviour had any grounds or not, it is not difficult to imagine how challenging —to say the least— living with England’s most dissolute and libidinous poet was. Lord Byron went from being the nation’s darling to being rebuffed by his society. Two months later, on April 25, Byron set for Belgium. He was never to return home, and he never saw his daughter again. Around that date he wrote the third canto of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”, which contains this reference to Ada in its very first stanza:
Is thy face like thy mother’s, my fair child!
Ada! sole daughter of my house and heart?
When last I saw thy young blue eyes they smiled,
And then we parted, – not as now we part,
But with a hope. – Awaking with a start,
The waters heave around me; and on high
The winds lift up their voices: I depart,
Whither I know not; but the hour’s gone by
When Albion’s lessening shores could grieve or glad mine eye.
Byron never saw Ada again, although from some of his letters and the stanza above we know he did think about her: “I have a great love for little Ada, and I look forward to her as the pillar of my old age, should I ever reach that desolate period, which I hope not.”, wrote the poet to his publisher John Murray. He sent Annabella a locket with his hair for their five-year-old daughter, and in exchange she sent him a portrait of the child. Ada grew up fatherless, with her mother, her grandmother, and a legion of tutors. Annabella took great pains to ensure that Ada received a carefully designed education and did not fall into poetic musings like her father. Annabella made sure her daughter followed a strict timetable: Music at 10, French Reading at 11:15, Arithmetic at 11:30, Work at 1:30, Music again at 3:15 and French Exercises at 4:30 (Ada’s school day in the year 1824; she was eight). The zeal with which Annabella supervised Ada’s education might seem curious from our perspective. However, Annabella herself had been instructed in several subjects, four languages, drawing and dancing; and she was a wealthy, educated woman with the money and time to focus all her energies on her daughter’s upbringing. The young Ada showed signs of genius —mathematical and with a tint of imagination— from an early age: In 1828 she designed the plans for a flying machine.
Ada’s childhood does not sound like a happy one: her mother was not especially warm, her education occupied a great deal of her time and she suffered from frequent illnesses. However, she enjoyed the privileges that come with money, and when she was ten, she was taken on a fifteen-month Grand Tour of the continent. When they came back, they moved to London. Because of her rank and education, she met the intellectual personalities of her age, and became good friends with some of them, such as Charles Dickens, Michael Faraday, Joanna Baillie and Mary Somerville.
Ada Gordon married William King, who was later to become the Earl of Lovelace. They had three children. Ada loved horses and gambling. She attempted to create a mathematical model for bets, the failure of which led her to a considerable debt.
She died of uterine cancer in 1852, aged 36, curiously at the same age her father passed away.
Lovelace and Babbage
Charles Babbage was Cambridge Lucasian Professor of Mathematics and founder of the Statistical Society. His life’s dream was to invent a colossal reliable mechanical calculator machine called the Difference Engine, a project that he never finished (it was finally built from his original plans in 2000 and can be found in the Science Museum in London). He is best known for the invention of the Analytical Engine, a precursor to the modern computer.
It was June 1833, when eighteen-year old Ada met Charles Babbage. They became good friends and began exchanging letters and notes discussing mathematical issues, including, amongst others, the plans for the Analytical Engine. It was Babbage who coined the name “The Enchantress of Numbers” in reference to Ada. In 1843, Ada published a translation of Luigi Menabrea’s Sketch of the Analytical Engine —a French transcription of a lecture by Babbage— with her notes, remarkably longer than the paper. This section includes what it has become known as the first computer program, an algorithm detailing the instructions for the first computer programme, making Ada Lovelace the first computer programmer. This, along with her other contributions, led her to be considered the founder of computing science.
“Ada Lovelace Day” is celebrated internationally every October since 2009 with the aim to promote young girls’ interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and celebrate women’s contributions to STEM fields.
If you are interested in Ada’s life, there are some recent biographies out there, for instance James Essinger’s Ada’s Algorithm (Melville House 2013). However, if fiction is more your cup of tea, I strongly recommend Sydney Padua’s The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Penguin Books, 2015) and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (Faber&Faber 1993).
About the Author
Francesca Blanch Serrat is an MA candidate. She graduated in English Studies with a minor in Gender Studies from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (Catalonia) in 2015. She spent a life changing, tea charged academic year in the University of Edinburgh in 2014. She is currently working on her MA dissertation on Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya. Her main focuses of interest are 18th century women writers and English and French Romanticism. She likes cats, Feminism, dead French revolutionaries, socks, and talking about Lord Byron with alarming familiarity.
Written content of this post copyright © Francesca Blanch Serrat, 2016.