Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Computing Credentials of the Lady Lovelace

                Augusta Ada Byron was the only legitimate child of Lord Byron; she was born on December 10th 1815, but Byron and her mother separated a month after Ada was born and she had no contact with her father, who died when she was nine years old. Her mother, Anne Isabella Milbanke, feared that her daughter would inherit her father’s waywardness and she had her rigorously tutored in a bid to extirpate any latent moral turpitude. The young Ada showed a precocious talent for mathematics and she was encouraged in her studies of the subject. 

Young Ada

Her mother showed little interest in her upbringing, farming her out to her doting mother, but she made sure to write enough ‘concerned’ letters regarding the child’s welfare to dispel public suspicions (she urged the grandmother to keep these, as proof if it were ever needed, even though she referred to Ada as ‘it’ on occasion). Concerns that the Byron blood might be strong in Ada were confirmed when the seventeen year old tried to elope with her private tutor, whose relatives recognised her and informed her mother. 

Ada Lovelace

In 1835, she married William King, the 8th Baron King, who, in 1838, became the Earl of Lovelace, providing her with the name by which she is most usually known – Ada Lovelace. In the 1840s she enjoyed a relaxed relationship with a number of men, which led to rumours of various affairs, including one with John Crosse, the son of electrical pioneer Andrew Crosse, to whom she bequeathed the personal mementoes left to her by her father. She also entered into a gambling syndicate with several male colleagues, hoping to exploit a mathematical model that would ensure success in large bets – this failed badly, leaving her many thousands of pounds in debt, which her irate husband was forced to settle. 

Charles Babbage

Lovelace was acquainted with Charles Babbage, the eccentric inventor of the Difference and Analytical Engines, which are commonly held to be the precursors of the modern computer. In 1842, Babbage gave a seminar at the University of Turin about his Analytical Engine, which was written up by Luigi Menabrea (then an engineering student, later Prime Minister of Italy), in French and was published in the Bibliothèque Universelle de Genève. Babbage asked Lovelace to translate this into English and to add notes, which she spent close to a year doing. It is these notes that have led some to claim that Lovelace wrote the first ‘computer program’, as the table in Note G is an algorithm for the computation of Bernoulli numbers using the Analytical Engine, although other have pointed out that Babbage supplied the notes which he had written several years before and all Lovelace did was to spot a ‘bug’ in the table. Nevertheless, the position of the world’s first computer programmer is currently filled by Ada, The Right Honourable the Countess of Lovelace, (The computer language ‘Ada’, created for the United States Department of Defence {I’m sorry, my American friends, it’s a noun not a verb…}, is named after her). 

The Difference Engine

Regardless of her contribution, she was the first to realise that the Analytical Engine was capable of being programmed, rather than simply being a huge number-cruncher, and for that alone she deserves to be recognised on the lamentably far too-short list of female contributors to the history of science (there are simply not enough role-models for future women scientists as it is, although, happily, things are starting to change). 

Lady Ada Lovelace

In 1852, Lovelace was diagnosed with uterine cancer, and as the illness progressed she fell further and further under the influence of her mother, who curtailed who could, and who could not, make visits – her friends and confidants were all excluded. She underwent a religious conversion, and on August 30th she whispered a confession to her husband, who left the bedside and never returned (was it an admission of infidelity, perhaps?). She died on November 27th 1852, aged thirty-six.

1 comment:

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