Lovelace, Ada

Tagged: People | Community

The name by which UK mathematician and Computer theorist Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852) is normally and conveniently known; daughter of Lord Byron. Lovelace was raised by her mother from infancy, gaining from Anne Noel (1792-1860) a precocious interest and intensive education in Mathematics, accompanied by a growing competence in other languages, as revealed in the recent discovery [see Checklist below] of her yet-unpublished translation of Friedrich Schiller's Der Geisterseher (in parts 1787-1789) as "The Neapolitan Brothers", made circa 1829-1832.

After their first meeting in 1833, Charles Babbage in 1833, he showed her his Difference Engine (see Computers), which was succeeded in 1836 by the more ambitious (but never built) Analytical Engine. Lovelace focused her skills on the creation of programmes capable of instructing the 1836 design. In 1840 in Italy, Babbage gave a lecture on his Analytical Engine, inspiring the young Italian mathematician Luigi Federico Menabrea (1809-1896) to compose "Notions sur la machine analytique de M Charles Babbage" (October 1842 Bibliothèque universelle de Geneve), which comprises the first description in print of the Engine. Lovelace soon translated this essay as "Sketch of the analytical engine invented by Charles Babbage, Esq. by L F Menabrea, of Turin, officer of the military engineers" (September 1843 Scientific Memoirs); an offprint appeared almost immediately as Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage, Esq. by L F Menabrea, of Turin, Officer of the Military Engineers, With Notes by the Translator (1843 chap). The notes acknowledged in this offprint take up in fact nearly three times as much space as the original essay, and contain Lovelace's central thoughts and figurings; a table appended to her Note G graphically represents the algorithm necessary to generate Bernoulli numbers using Babbage's machine. This table has been described as the first computer programme. (In 1979 the computer language Ada was so-named in her honour.)

In her notes Lovelace was careful to distinguish between Babbage's 1822 Engine, and his 1836 plans for the Analytical Engine, for which her programs were designed, as described in Ada: The Enchantress of Numbers – A Selection from the Letters of Lord Byron's Daughter and her Description of the First Computer (1992) edited by Betty A Toole. Lovelace herself was seriously ill over the last years of her short life, which along with the then technological unfeasibility of the Analytical Engine, has contributed (not unjustly) to her being treated as a highly potentiated Icon of the submersion of women of science in the nineteenth century (see Feminism). Several nonfantastic tales and plays focus on her life and (perhaps inevitably) relationships.

Writers who have created Alternate Histories where both Babbage's machines and Lovelace's programs succeed (see also Steampunk) include William Gibson and Bruce Sterling in The Difference Engine (1990), which transfers Ada's interest to the earlier machine; and John Crowley in Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land (2005), in which she is a central character. She is the apparent inspiration for the teenaged mathematical genius Thomasina Coverly in Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia (1993 chap). She is the protagonist, both as her historical self and as a simulation on a Far-Future Quantum Computers, of Masaki Yamada's Ada (1994). Lovelace is an underlier figure, not exactly named, in Bryan Talbot's Heart of Empire; Or, the Legacy of Luther Arkwright (graph 2001), and she occupies with Babbage a founder's role in Paul Crilley's The Lazarus Machine (2012) and its sequels. She features in the Young Adult Steampunk Wollstonecraft Detective Agency series by Jordan Stratford, beginning with The Case of the Missing Moonstone (2015). In Conceiving Ada (1997) directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson, a contemporary Computer scientist uses "undying information waves" (see Pseudoscience) to give birth to a child with Lovelace's personality.

Fortunately, Lovelace's life and achievements are no longer secrets to be unveiled; in this context it might be suggested that the indirections through which notable women of that era were forced to express themselves should no longer be taken as prima facie evidence that their accomplishments were essentially supportive of their betters. That Ada Lovelace's extensive seminal findings of 1843 were expressed in the form of notes signed A A L and attached to the relatively cursory report of a fully identified male itself requires decipherment. Her life throughout shows arguable signs of misprision. [JC]

Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace

born London: 10 December 1815

died London: 27 November 1852


about the author


Previous versions of this entry

Website design and build: STEEL

Site ©2011 Gollancz, SFE content ©2011 SFE Ltd.