Ada Lovelace in a watercolour portrait by Alfred Edward Chalon. Her insights into how the digital age might unfold were ignored during her lifetime.SSPL/Getty Images
15 Dec 2014

Ada Lovelace, prophet of the computer age

Ignored in her own time, Lord Byron’s daughter was the first to grasp the implications of Charles Babbage’s analytical engine. James Essinger examines how the 21st century has resurrected her as an icon of suppressed female genius.

Ada Lovelace in a watercolour portrait by Alfred Edward Chalon. Her insights into how the digital age might unfold were ignored during her lifetime.SSPL/Getty Images

The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living”, wrote T.S. Eliot in his 1945 poem Little Gidding.

His words could have been written for Ada Lovelace. Daughter of another great poet, Lord Byron, she died on 27 November 1852, aged 36 and in great pain from uterine cancer. Her remarkable achievement – foretelling the information technology revolution of the 20th century – was largely forgotten. But the 21st century has made atonement to Ada for that. In an age in which computers are part of the fabric of life and when past injustices to women still smart, Ada has become an icon of suppressed female genius. Her story illuminates not only her own times, but ours.

Ada’s prophetic insights were revealed in 1843 when she wrote an astonishing 20,000-word article about the “analytical engine”, a highly-advanced mechanical calculator designed by British polymath and mathematician Charles Babbage. Ada foresaw that it had the potential to do far more than calculate – the invention might one day process all types of information, just as our computers do today.

But her insights were conceived a century before the world’s first clumsy, primitive, electro-mechanical digital computer would come into being.

Much of the world, too, has been largely oblivious to Ada
and her achievements until fairly recently.

It’s hard to study Ada without blurring the borders between life and death. She has a knack for living on in the imagination – and affections – of anyone who gets to know her story. I was about 40 years old when I first heard her name and remember the moment vividly – I was visiting the London Science Museum and, sauntering into the Charles Babbage exhibition, I saw her name on the wall. The laconic text described her as someone who had worked with Babbage and who had promoted his work to the wider world.

Ada is buried in the Byron family tomb at St. Mary’s Church in Hucknall village in Nottinghamshire, quite close to Byron’s family home. It is no more than 50 kilometres from where I grew up, and I didn’t know anything about her.

Much of the world, too, has been largely oblivious to Ada and her achievements until fairly recently. Even Babbage only appears to have thought of her as an eager amateur. By all accounts he never recognised how profound her understanding of the analytical engine was – let alone that it was more profound than his own. He saw the machine as no more than a sophisticated calculator.

Babbage died in 1871, and as the 19th century came to an end Ada was remembered only by those few mathematicians who had read about Babbage’s work. Alan Turing, who laid down many of the intellectual foundations necessary for the invention of the modern computer in the 1940s, was one of them. Ada considered computers as incapable of originality, and Turing appears to have agreed with this. He dubbed it the “Lovelace objection” based on a paragraph in Ada’s article.

“The Analytical Engine has no pretentions 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. Its province is to assist us in making available what we are already acquainted with,” she wrote.

But Turing’s recognition of Ada was very much an exception. By 1950 few Britons had ever heard of her. It was only in the late 1970s, when Australian computer historian Allan Bromley put a new spotlight on Babbage’s work, that the name Ada Lovelace emerged into the newly computerised 20th century.

Even so, Ada’s contribution to Babbage’s work was still comprehensively misunderstood. She was acknowledged as his friend, to some extent his muse, and as a broadcaster of his work. Still, the idea that she had insights into Babbage’s machine well beyond his own was lost in obscurity.

Or perhaps the word “misunderstood” is too generous. With the exception of Bromley, Ada’s contribution was vindictively and deliberately downplayed by many computer scientists, scholars and researchers even as they were suddenly putting her work under the spotlight. Bruce Collier, for example, in his thesis The Little Engines That Could’ve (1990), has this to say about Ada: “There is one subject ancillary to Babbage about which far too much has been written and that is the contributions of Ada Lovelace … it is no exaggeration to say that she was a manic-depressive with the most amazing delusions about her own talents, and a rather shallow understanding of both Charles Babbage and the Analytical Engine …

“To me, this familiar material seems to make obvious once again that Ada was as mad as a hatter … I will retain an open mind on whether Ada was crazy because of her substance abuse … I guess someone has to be the most overrated figure in the history of computing.”

Unfortunately, we will never know if Collier continued to think of Ada this way until the end of his life (he passed away some years ago), but the prejudice against her at the time was common enough. The suspicion must be that this was because she was a woman and most computer scientists and scholars who were studying her work were men.

Times, thankfully, have changed.

There is little doubt that her reputation will now endure forever.

Since around 1990 Ada’s reputation has grown as more people have become familiar with what she actually wrote. Her “Notes by the Translator” (known colloquially as the “Notes”) for Sketch of the Analytical Engine by L.F. Meabrea is now available online and there are books and thousands of articles about her. The world at large is becoming more familiar with her name. There is an International Ada Lovelace Day, a Hollywood screenplay – Enchantress of Numbers – and a musical in the works. There is even a popular software language called Ada.

Perhaps her greatest posthumous accolade comes from Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs’ biographer. In his bestselling book The Innovators, Ada was the first entry (See review, page 104). There is little doubt that her reputation will now endure forever.

Goodness knows she deserves it.

Ada was born Ada Byron on Sunday, 10 December 1815. Her mother, born Annabella Milbanke, decided she could take no more of Lord Byron and stole away from her sleeping husband with Ada in the early morning of Monday, January 15, 1816.

Her marriage had been ruined by Byron’s irrational behaviour, constant infidelity (including with his half-sister Augusta) and enormous debts, which meant that bailiffs had actually set up residence in the Byron home. Nevertheless, Ada’s mother still retained some affection for the poet. Lady Byron and Ada went to stay with Lady Byron’s parents, from where she wrote inexplicably doting letters to him.

Soon the disastrous marriage was the talk of the nation’s drawing rooms – his affair with Augusta a scandal from which Byron’s reputation never recovered.

He departed Britain forever on April 25, 1816, three months and 10 days after his wife had left him, pursued all the way to Dover by bailiffs seeking payment for the sumptuous gilded coach in which he travelled.

Aboard the cross-Channel ship, in a hellish storm between bouts of seasickness, Byron scratched his anguish at leaving Ada in the first three stanzas of the third canto of his long poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

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.

It sounds like the plaintive lament of a father who yearns to see his daughter again, but his emotional convalescence doesn’t appear to have lasted much beyond his landfall at Ostend. When he finally reached the port he celebrated his new freedom on continental Europe by seducing a hotel chambermaid.

The next eight years of Byron’s life were spent in a muddle of sentimentality, the writing of great poetry, and amorous dalliances.

Those who believe he would have been a better parent for Ada than Lady Byron should bear in mind that while in exile Byron fathered an illegitimate daughter, Allegra, and while he paid for her upkeep he rarely saw her. Poor little Allegra died under the good care of the nuns at the Capuchin Convent in Bagnacavallo, Italy, at the age of five, probably of typhus or malaria.

Byron himself was to die on April 19 1824 of a fever he had contracted in the town of Missolonghi, where he had gone to fight for the cause of freeing the Greeks from what he saw as the Ottoman yoke.

Ada was brought up in a very different environment from the glamorous, dissolute exile of her father. Her childhood was privileged but often lonely, spent in a variety of palatial but physically and emotionally chilly stately homes.

She and her mother had a house of their own but Lady Byron preferred a nomadic existence, renting large residences for a year or so and then moving on. She had a habit of going away on rest-cures and leaving Ada to the company of her cat Puff and the governess.

Lady Byron discouraged Ada from making friends and, terrified that she might become as capricious and unstable as her father, arranged for a rigorous – and it must be said, highly effective – mathematical education from various worthy and highly knowledgeable tutors.

The force-feeding found a willing pupil.

Ada was fascinated by mathematics. But she had free time too and spent much of it thinking about flying. Around the age of 12 she drew up extensive plans for a pair of flapping wings. She even fantasised about building a kind of steam-powered flying machine. In one letter to her mother she wrote, “As soon as I have got flying to perfection, I have got a scheme about a … steam engine, which, if ever I effect it, will be more wonderful than either steam packets or steam carriages.”

Lady Byron, of course, did not approve of these plans and determined the obsession must stop. Yet despite being grounded by her mother in the most literal sense, Ada continued to nurture a passion for extending the limits of science through her imagination. Later in her life she even went so far as to call it “poetical science”. It was something Lady Byron never seems to have fully understood, yet it was her daughter’s most prized heritage.

Despite their 24 year age difference, Charles Babbage the “father of computing” and Ada Lovelace shared a close friendship based on their passion for mathematics. As far as we know it was platonic.Credit: SSPL/Getty Images/painting by Alexander Craig

On 5 June 1833 Ada met Charles Babbage at a party in London. Little is known about the meeting or venue, but what is clear is that at that moment Ada and Babbage became friends for life. It was a friendship unchecked by Ada’s marriage in 1835 to a kindly if somewhat dim aristocrat, William King. (He subsequently became the Earl of Lovelace, giving Ada the name by which she is best known today.)

When Babbage met Ada he was 41 and a widower, and she just 17. There is no evidence of romantic attachment – at least none ever mentioned by Babbage. There was an enigmatic letter that Lady Byron sent to Ada a couple of years later in which she queried whether Babbage had “cut” (socially shunned) Ada after her marriage, but no indication that he was ever in love with her. But then Babbage kept his feelings very much to himself.

One passion Babbage made no secret of was his fascination with the Jacquard Automatic, a machine invented by Frenchman Joseph Marie Jacquard in the first few years of the 19th century. It wove images into silk fabric using a long chain of punched cards to control the rods that governed the action of the individual warp threads.

Babbage’s calculating machines operated in essentially the same way.

The 1876 Jacquard loom was one of the inspirations for Babbage’s analytic engine. Just as the loom’s punched cards directed the woven pattern, so Babbage’s machines used punch cards to instruct the input of numerical data.Credit: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

The difference engine, for example, was designed to create tables of mathematical data vital for military and navigational calculations at a time when these tables were prepared manually by clerks called “computers”. For all their skill at arithmetic, computers often made mistakes. Babbage aimed to solve the problem by building a steam-driven machine that used a series of rods and cogwheels to crank out the calculations with flawless accuracy.  The room-sized machine even had a printer as a means of checking the results.

It was named the difference engine because it calculated logarithm tables, for instance, using addition and subtraction, based on Newton’s method of “finite differences”.

But the analytical engine was a conceptual leap forward in design over the difference engine. To be powered by six steam engines and the size of a house, its thousands of rods and cogwheels were not only to crunch numbers (like the difference engine) – the machine introduced the concept of data storage and programming.  The key was to use punched cards as the Jacquard loom did, but with some types to load numerical data into the machine and others to input instructions. It would have a “mill”, analogous to a modern computer’s processor, a “store”, like a modern computer’s memory, and would carry out sub-programs. It was in every way an amazing anticipation of the modern digital computer.

Ada was also fascinated by the Jacquard loom, yet the metaphor suggested more to her than to Babbage. The analytical engine might be comprehensively used to control almost any process, as Ada’s Notes make clear.

“The distinctive characteristic of the Analytical Engine, and that which has rendered it possible to endow mechanism with such extensive faculties as bid fair to make this engine the executive right hand of abstract algebra, is the introduction into it of the principle which Jacquard devised for regulating, by means of punched cards, the most complicated patterns in the fabrication of brocaded stuff...

“It is in this that the distinction between the two engines lies. Nothing of the sort exists in the Difference Engine. We may say most aptly, that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.”

This passage represents the heart of Ada’s understanding of the nature of the link between digitised weaving and digitised computing, expressed with considerable elegance. It is an understanding both extraordinary and visionary, especially when written at a time of primitive technology. Not even precision engineering, which would become such a remarkable feature of the later Victorian period, existed as a discipline. The technology of her times was very “masculine”, comprised of steel, fire, smoke and steam. Her own writing about the analytical engine by contrast seems somehow feminine – and all the more intelligent and interesting for that. Here Ada foresees the modern computer by telling us that the analytical engine can be used to handle any kind of process:

“... 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 most interesting in their nature. In enabling mechanisms to combine together general symbols in successions of unlimited variety and extent, a uniting link is established between the operations of matter and the abstract mental processes of the most abstract branch of mathematical science.

“A new, a vast, and a powerful language is developed for the future use of analysis, in which to wield its truths so that these may become of more speedy and accurate practical application for the purposes of mankind than the means hitherto in our possession have rendered possible. Thus not only the mental and the material, but the theoretical and the practical in the mathematical world, are brought into more intimate and effective connection with each other.”

Babbage never actually built the machines he is famous for designing. Manufacturing the thousands of intricate parts required was beyond his organisational abilities and probably the technology of the day. This is a woodcut impression of one of Babbage’s designs for his Difference Engine.Credit: SSPL/Getty Images

In her Notes, Ada also anticipates modern digital music by suggesting that the analytical engine could “compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent”.

She even, arguably, devised the world’s first computer program. Part of the Notes focuses on using the analytical engine to produce Bernoulli numbers – a sequence of rational numbers that are important in various areas of number theory – in considerable detail. Although Babbage appears to have checked her work, it remains her own idea.

Martin Campbell-Kelly, one of the most distinguished computer historians in the world, questions whether Ada’s writings about the Bernoulli numbers can strictly be described as a computer program. But he acknowledges their prescience.

“What superficially looked like programs in Lovelace’s Sketch are more like program ‘traces’. That is, they are not computer programs in the modern sense but instead they show how a program would have been executed,” he says.

Ada’s confidence grew as she worked on her Notes. But prejudice prevented her from contributing all that she could – to Babbage’s great disadvantage.

Babbage’s designs for his machines – first the difference engine and later the more sophisticated analytical engine – became famous, largely for their audacity. The Victorians liked the notion of machines that could “think”. But gradually his inability to complete them became notorious, and the analytical engine in particular became known for never being built.

Ada, however, always seems convinced that the analytical engine would have worked if it had been completed and did her best to help have it built. She realised that one reason for Babbage’s failure to produce a working version of either the difference engine or the analytical engine was that he was hopeless at diplomatic relations with influential people. As former Microsoft senior executive Nathan Myhrvold says: “Babbage was unable to complete a big project.”

Ada understood that at the time, and offered to help Babbage, as she put it, “… on all practical matters relating to whatever can involve relations with any fellow-creature or fellow-creatures.”

But Babbage rejected her offer. Like the computer scientists who would later dismiss her, he simply did not believe that Ada could contribute to his work in any meaningful sense.

And so the analytical engine was never built – at least not in his or Ada’s lifetimes. The difference engine was only built by an assiduous and talented team at the London Science Museum, under the leadership of Doron Swade, in 1991, 200 years after Babbage was born.

Ada was undeniably a genius. And it now seems likely that her reputation is secure for at least as long as computers play a vital role in our lives. Her genius was for understanding what a computer could be and what it could do.

If anyone in the 19th century can be said to have been intellectually sagacious about the age of information technology, it was her. The writings of her contemporary Charles Dickens, for example, show none of the prophecy of the technological age to come.

Although Babbage rejected her offer of help to get his machines built, Ada continued to be friends with him – but the relationship was never quite the same. And all too soon her tragic, premature death put an end to her dreams.

But today those dreams have come true, and the computer age is finally giving Ada Lovelace her due.

James Essinger’s biography of Ada Lovelace is titled, A Female Genius – how Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, started the computer age