The godmother of coding

05.12.2019 | Text Silvia Tyburski | Photo Prismatic Pictures, ddp images, akg-images

A painting of Ada Lovelace wearing a dress and looking towards the viewer.
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How Ada Lovelace outlined the principles of software development 100 years before the first computer.

The date is 5 June 1833. Mathematician and widower Charles Babbage is hosting another gathering of the members of London society’s highest echelons. Cultural juggernauts such as Darwin and Dickens regularly rub elbows at these soirées. Lady Byron, divorcee of the late poet George Gordon Byron (1788-1824), and her 17-year-old daughter, Ada, are among the guests. Ada hangs on the host’s every word as he tells about his invention: a machine made of gears, copper wires and cranks that has computing capabilities. Technology’s advancement has made Great Britain’s economy dependent on the ability to make quick, accurate calculations.

The government must also have seen potential in Babbage’s “difference engine”. After all, it provided financial support to the tune of 17,500 pounds for its development – an amount that could have, at the time, financed two war frigates. The Byron women, especially Ada, are so intrigued that they return for a second visit shortly after, so the scientist can explain his fantastic invention, nearly 80 centimetres tall, in more detail.

Babbage, 25 years Ada’s senior, quickly becomes the most important man in her life. The two strike up a correspondence based on their shared fascination of science and the possibilities it opens. Ada continues to visit Babbage even after she marries William King – later to become the Earl of Lovelace – in 1835 and moves to his estate 300 kilometres away. Born in 1815, Ada owes her exceptional education to her mother, a learned woman in her own right. Lady Byron hoped that schooling and mathematical training would spare Ada from inheriting the manic traits of her father, from whom Lady Byron separated when her daughter was an infant. Though 12-year-old Ada’s mother doesn’t approve of her ambitions to study bird anatomy to construct a flying machine, she nonetheless hires well-paid tutors for her daughter.

A painting of Lord Byron resting his head on his hand and looking off to the left.

These private studies are the only passion the gifted young woman’s mother allowed her to pursue. As a 19-year-old, she writes, “I find that nothing but very close and intense application to subjects of a scientific nature now seems at all to keep my imagination from running wild, or to stop up the void which seems to be left in my mind from a want of excitement.” Despite getting married and having three children shortly after, the countess defies the mores of the times and continues taking lessons. Her husband’s intellect is not exactly on a par with hers, making her and Babbage’s friendship even more significant. To let Ada continue her quest for knowledge, he joins the Royal Society.

Ada begs Babbage to involve her in his research; she is one of the few to fully grasp the impact his life’s work and her own contributions will have on the world. Babbage, meanwhile, has a new project inspired by Joseph-Marie Jacquard’s (1752-1834) mechanical loom that uses punch cards to weave complex patterns: the Analytical Engine. Like patterns in fabric, the concept behind the Analytical Engine (which Babbage will never bring to completion) involves mastering new and increasingly complex calculations, the “patterns” of which are encoded in the punch cards. Ada sees potential in the contraption early on, observing that it could also be used to produce music, letters and pictures.

A painting of Ada Lovelace in a bright dress, looking off to the right.

Her command of the material is evident in her comments accompanying an essay on the Analytical Engine, written by the Italian engineer Luigi Menabrea in 1842 at Babbage’s urging. Short on funds, Babbage hopes that its publication will secure him more financing from the government, and it appears in French in a Swiss science journal the same year. Delighted with Ada’s English translation, Babbage asks her to add her own notes. She agrees, and the resulting document containing Ada’s notes and calculations is three times as long as the original. In it, she lucidly outlines the data, but more notably, she also provides calculations for the operations through which the data is processed and which are defined by the punch cards, effectively creating the world’s first computer programme.

1843 is a year of intellectual fulfilment for the 28-year-old. Perhaps she even envisions a career in science as a translator. Encouraged, she writes to Babbage: “That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal, as time will show. (...) Before ten years are over, the Devil’s in it if I have not sucked out some of the life-blood from the mysteries of this universe.”

It won’t come to that. Ada dies from cervical cancer at the age of 36. Around 100 years later, computer pioneers discovered the work of the maths duo, and the world saw just how prescient Ada was. Her legacy is far-reaching, with the likes of Queen Elizabeth II counting among her admirers. When the Queen published her first Instagram post, in March 2019 at the London Science Museum, she credited her ability to do so to the contributions of Ada Lovelace. She delighted in the museum’s initiative to teach children programming, calling it an inspiration for the next generation of inventors.

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