Lady Ada of Lovelace, Pioneer of the Computer Era, Brilliant Visionary

Famous Women in Computer ScienceThoughts

Ada Lovelace is one of the most revered women in recent history, and for good reason. She was among the brightest math experts and visionaries in her era. Because she was also the daughter of Lord Byron and Anabella Milbanke, this alone made her famous, and many of her personal letters and bank records were preserved. This article summarizes over eight years of research, and over twenty years of data gathering done by Dr. Betty Alexandra Toole, the author of “Ada, The Enchantress of Numbers”. This book is undoubtedly the best, most accurate resource for information regarding this legendary woman.

Ada’s short life took place during the beginning of both the Industrial Revolution and the Romantic Era. There were two popular and distinct mindsets during this time; Objectivism and Subjectivism. Objectivsts strictly studied scientific truth, unwavering reason and self-discipline. Subjectivists were concerned about the value of creativity, emotions, and the imagination, considering intuitive insight to be a “higher truth”. They were also concerned about the destruction of these values by the creation of machines. Subjectivists saw technology as dehumanizing.

Ada’s father, Lord Byron, a world renown Romantic poet, argued in front of Parliament against against technology. Ada’s mother, Anabella Milbanke, was a well respected, accomplished mathematician and rich businesswoman. Ada is the product of the short and stormy union of these two powerful, opposing forces.

The poet Lord Byron’s real name was George Gordon. He was the descendant of a long line of powerful and crazy men. His father, Captain John Byron, was known as Mad Jack. He was a gambling womanizing alcoholic, who married rich women and used their money. At the end of his life, he hid in Paris to avoid creditors, and died when George was three years old. George’s mother was Cathrine Gordon of Gight, who could trace her bloodline back to King James I.

George was born with a club foot, and had a horrible school life until the age of 10, when his uncle died, making George the next Lord Byron. Byron attended Cambridge, and loved shocking people, with antics such as keeping a bear as a pet, and parading around with it. After Cambridge, he traveled around and wrote poetry, doing pretty much whatever he pleased. His poetry seemed to come about at the right moments in time, and was well received.

His work called Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage made him world famous overnight. He led a crazy reckless life of controversy, booze, and impregnating women, one of whom was his half-sister. He received similar media attention to today’s drug addicted stars, and people revered and reviled him in similar ways.

Lord Byron tried to court Anabella, but with little success. They wrote back and forth, mostly chastising letters from Anabella, and poetic retorts from Lord Byron. Gossip started to threaten his career, and he was advised to marry, to avoid the accusations of fathering a child with his half-sister. Byron proposed to Anabella, who saw this as a challenge to reform him, and help him change his ways. She accepted.

Lady Ada was born in December of 1815. Her father wrote: “The child of Love – though born in bitterness and nurtured in convulsion”. Byron drank and partied away his own money, living in an apartment in London filled with birds and dogs. He did not receive the money promised him upon marriage to Anabella, was unsuccessful at selling his estate, and started to have money issues. Anabella filed for separation weeks after Ada’s birth.

The law was such back then that Byron’s infidelity and drinking were not strong enough reasons for a woman to file for divorce. Anabella needed something scandalous to have a divorce filing approved (since Lord Byron protested). She eventually received a letter documenting Lord Byron’s incest, and won the divorce rights. They struck a deal, where Anabella would never reveal the evidence to the public, and Byron would divorce amicably. Ada remained in her mother’s custody. Byron fought to keep Ada in England, and won.

Byron spent the summer of 1816 with Mary Shelly and her husband. He fathered a child with her step sister, while writing a Famous work called Darkness, and while Shelly wrote Frankenstein. He kept custody of the child and moved to Italy, where he wrote Don Juan. The entire time, he thought about Ada, wrote about her, and theorized about her being a prodigy, although he never saw her again.

Anabella started Ada in strict training in math and science when she was five, determined not to have her follow in her father’s legacy. One of her instructors, Pestalozei, was one of the first instructors of this era to gear his teaching toward children by encouraging them to use their imagination. Ada enjoyed this immensely, and this training set the tone for her learning and teaching experiences throughout her life.

At the age of seven, she complained of severe headaches. At eight, she heard about her father’s death, and it seemed to affect her deeply, although she had never met him. Lord Byron died in 1824, helping liberate Greece from the Ottoman Empire. A massive funeral procession was held for him in London. it was proposed that he be buried in Westminster Abbey, but because of his crazy lifestyle, this proposal was denied.

At the age of twelve she drew up scientifically sound designs for a flying machine. This is also about the time that she started to rebel against her mother, who controlled her with strict math studies. Ada’s mother wrote that Ada mastered the art of “conversational litigation”, as many bright girls do at this age. Ada’s mother continued to monitor and control Ada’s imaginative tendencies throughout most of Ada’s life, afraid of her becoming anything like Lord Byron. Ada found creative and socially acceptable ways to rebel against this control.

At thirteen, she caught measles and was bedridden for three years. Her intense instruction did not stop during this time. By seventeen she was well educated in math, science, machinery, factories, and the inventions of the Industrial Revolution. She had a fling with one of her instructors, which pressed her mother to start finding potential husbands for Ada. In 1835 she happily married William, who became Earl of Lovelace, making her Countess of Lovelace.

In 1833, at age seventeen she met Charles Babbage who had just finished working on the Difference Engine, and began working on the Analytical Engine. She discussed his inventions with him at length, and immediately understood the significance of the Analytical Engine, unlike most people who had heard of it. She was invited to Babbage’s parties, as a respected mathematician. This gave her the opportunity to meet Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, Augustus DeMorgan, and many other brilliant thinkers and scientists of her time.

At around this same time, Ada met and was mentored by Mary Somerville, a prominent self-taught scientist whose work was recently published. Mary Somerville was so well respected that her bust was placed on display in the Royal Academy Library, despite the fact that women were not allowed to go inside of this library. Female scientists had to enlist male help when they needed information from this library. Somerville was an enthusiastic teacher and mentor, and Ada spent a lot of fun times with the Somerville family throughout her life.

As a teacher and mentor, Ada used both logic and imagination to evoke a passion for math in her female students. She was a tough teacher, insisting that direct proofs be used where indirect proofs would suffice. But she was able to convey her passion for math, and inspire her students to love their studies. One of her instructional letters reads: “I get so eager when I write Mathematics to you, that I forget all about handwriting and everything else. – Your progress is the only thing that I desire. Believe me, your affectionate & untenable Instructress, A. Ada Byron”

Ada saw a tight tie between imagination and science, as complementary forces, yet balancing each other: “Mathematical Science shows what is. It is the language of unseen relations between things. But to use & apply that language we must be able to fully appreciate, to feel, to seize, the unseen, the unconscious. Imagination too shows what is, the is that is beyond the senses. Hence she is or should be especially cultivated by the truly Scientific, – those who wish to enter into the world around us!”

Ada continued to intensely study math by correspondence with famous mathematicians. She also tutored, and intensely studied the functional workings of the Analytical engine, while giving birth to and raising three children, and managing several households. She had certain social obligations as a prominent well-to-do female, and she resented these obligations for taking time away from her studies. She also often felt overwhelmed by her children, and had others help her raise them.

Ada wrote extensively in letters to her mother, and others, about self observations. She spent a lot of time and energy analyzing her thoughts, theories, and actions in healthy ways. In addition to her genius, her letters exhibit an emotionally balanced and very grounded attitude, even when analyzing her own illness and possible death. She was most definitely a very brilliant, poetic, emotionally strong and stable female figure of this era. It is obvious that people who met her held the same opinion of her, and had great respect for her ingenuity, imagination and strength of will.

She became very good friends with Charles Babbage. Their families visited each other, and they spent a lot of time and energy theorizing about the workings and the possibilities for the Analytical engine. Babbage had difficulty getting support from the British government for this new machine, but was invited to Turin Italy in 1842, to present his invention. The Analytical Engine becomes documented in a Swiss technical journal, in French. Lovelace translates it for Babbage, adding her own notes, and does a spectacularly better job at explaining the invention than the original publication. From this moment forward, Babbage asks her to write articles about the Engine, and she accepts.

Her description of the Analytical Engine was so profound because of her thorough understanding of the mechanism as well as it’s potential. She also used metaphors and visual examples, which still apply today to the modern computer. Her insight gave a vision to the importance of the Engine that even Babbage could not have foreseen.

Over time it becomes clear that Babbage is the inventor of the mechanism, and Lovelace is the inventor of the “programming language” for the device. She devises what is equivalent to the punch cards of the 1950′s and 60′s computers, where holes in a card instruct the analytical engine on what to execute next, thus writing the very first computer instruction set. While doing this, she was studying Functional Equations with Dr. Augustus DeMorgan, and devising ways in which the Analytical Engine could calculate these equations. She wrote reams of notes to DeMorgan, working out proofs and theorems, and awaiting his answers by correspondence.

At around the same time, she theorized about computer generated music, geometry in greater than four dimensions, and game theory, all of which have since proven to be accurate and extremely insightful. She wrote extensive machine heuristics for chess and backgammon, and theorized about how the Analytical Engine could play these games. Her chess algorithms predate any used today, and are extremely accurate.

Lovelace and Babbage had a close intellectual friendship, and spent a lot of time together theorizing about everything, dabbling in metaphysics (Babbage believed, Lovelace was skeptical), testing logic flows for games, and pondering together the way many intellectual friends do.

In 1841, Ada became ill for a year, but this does not slow her down. She continues to find other creative outlets, such as music and poetry, but this frightens her mother, and her mother discourages this behavior. In 1842, Ada hears of her father’s incestuous relationship. Medora, the child, is promiscuous, and Ada tries to calm her down.

In this same year, Babbage requests that Lovelace summarize his Analytical Engine notes for the scientific community (thirty volumes). She does so, correcting his few errors, adding her own facts, and using Bernoulli numbers as a computational example for the something the Engine could calculate entirely alone. Babbage was incredibly impressed with her work, and simply accepted her changes and additions in confidence, repeatedly expressing how impressed he is with her ingenuity. She was one of the few people who genuinely understood how his invention worked, and it’s potential.

She took the liberty of removing his text which discussed the lack of support from the British Government, stating to him that she thought it would be “political suicide”. The publisher agreed, but she and Babbage had a falling out, despite the fact that he abided by her wishes and accepted her changes. From that moment forward, they became closer friends, but no longer worked together.

Today she is called the Pioneer of Computing, not just because she wrote the first machine instruction set, but also because of her theories regarding Artificial Intelligence: “It is desirable to guard against the possibility of exaggerated ideas that might arise as to the powers of the Analytical Engine. In considering any new subject, there is frequently a tendency to overrate what we find to be already interesting or remarkable; and, secondly, by a sort of natural reaction, to undervalue the true state of the case, when we do discover that our notions have surpassed those that were not tenable. The Analytical Engine has no pretensions 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.”

In 1844, she became ill again, and in 1845, she was prescribed opiates for her pain. Like many people in pain, she consumed great quantities of opiates for pain, but did not exhibit addition when not in pain. This research dispels the myth that she was a drug addict, which is inaccurately stated by other authors. During this bout of illness, Ada saw this as an opportunity to experiment on herself for a cure. She called upon Michael Faraday to help, but he was also ill at this time. She enlisted others to help her with scientific experiments on her health.

Ada was the subject of rumors, since she was the daughter of Lord Byron, and also because she was seen traveling alone with men other than her husband. For the most part she simply enjoyed and mocked the rumors, maybe sometimes encouraged them, but generally did not let rumors affect her. She gambled socially, the way all of her friends in that social circle did in those days. The only bit of gossip which seems to be accurate is one extramarital affair with Frederick Knight, to which she admitted to William before she died.

This research also reveals that during her entire marriage, she was only given a small periodic allowance by her husband and her mother. She spent this money on her childrens tuition and clothing, her own books, and dresses for formal social events. She had no money of her own, did not get paid for any of her work, and her husband would inherit half of her mother’s fortune when her mother died. At the end of her life, she borrowed money from friends, to help her children find better tutors and nannies, and repaid it all before she died. her mother found out she was in dire straights, and agreed her grandchildren’s tuition fees, but this only slightly eased the burden.

In around 1850, near the end of her life, she visited Newstead Abbey, where her father was buried, and it was an emotional experience for her. She also finally decided to disrupt the emotional control her mother held over her, which caused a falling out between she and her mother. She and William traveled, met Queen Victoria, and attended and held social events until she became too ill to move. She died in 1852 at age thirty six.

It is remarkable that Lady Ada could remain as enthusiastic as she did. She was never paid for her hard work or contributions to other’s work. Until recently, her ingenuity and visionary nature were only recognized and appreciated by those close to her. She never had money of her own, despite being raised by and married to rich families. Her ill health and all of the other burdens placed on her were constant challenges. The false rumors about her supposed gambling addiction, affairs and drug addiction are still circulated today. During her time, and even today, some say that she is given too much credit regarding the Analytical Engine, despite the facts which are turned up by this research.

Despite all of this, Ada pursued what she loved, excelled at it, and never let even her own barriers stop her. She is more than a Pioneer of the Computer Era. She is a damn near perfect role model for many women, who today, face barriers and restrictions on what they can study and how they can excel. Today being International Women’s Appreciation Day, I can’t help but express my appreciation for this great woman.

A Little History Lesson: The ENIAC Programmers

Famous Women in Computer ScienceThoughts

Two of the goals we have here at DevChix are to promote women in development and educate others about women in development. I started thinking about how we might accomplish those goals and decided that one way would be to have history lessons on past women in development. Several women on the list have signed up to do these articles and my article is slated as the first one. So here is a little history lesson about the ENIAC programmers.

I first read about the ENIAC Programmers a couple of years ago when I accidentally stumbled on the WITI Hall of Fame. I was amazed I hadn’t heard about these women before, a little embarrassed that I hadn’t done more to find such women, and a little awestruck that they were never taught to me or mentioned in any computer science courses I had ever taken.

During WWII there were some 80 women who worked at the University of Pennsylvania calculating ballistics trajectories for the US Army. These women were referred to as the “computers” because they had to calculate complex differential equations by hand.

The ENIAC (Electrical Numerical Integrator And Calculator) computer was basically a very large calculator made up of 17,468 vacuum tubes, along with 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors, 1,500 relays, 6,000 manual switches and 5 million soldered joints. It covered 1800 square feet of floor space, weighed 30 tons, and consumed 160 kilowatts of electrical power. This computer was created to calculate these ballistics trajectories that all these women had been calculating by hand. It was built by John Mauchly and J Presper Eckert in 1946.

Six women were selected from the 80 “computers” to be the first programmers of the massive all-electronic digital computer. The programmers had to physically route data and program pulses through the machine with switches, digit trays and dozens of cables. Those first six programmers, all women, were Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances Snyder Holberton, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum. This photo is of Jean Jennings Bartik (left) and Frances Bilas Spence (right) preparing for the public unveiling of ENIAC, February 1946. Jean Jennings Bartik (left) and Frances Bilas Spence (right) preparing for the public unveiling of ENIAC, February 1946.

On February 15, 1946, the ENIAC Computer was unveiled to the public and press. It ran the ballistics trajectory programmed by the six programmers and captured the world’s imagination. The machine became a legendary machine and all the engineers of the machine, all men, became quite famous. However, unlike the engineers, the programmers, all women, were never mentioned. Its not really that surprising but it is sad. These women did something extraordinary and it hasn’t been until the last 2 decades or so that their story has even begun to be told.

Currently there is an effort to produce a documentary about the ENIAC programmers before they all disappear. The site is currently taking donations to help fund the documentary so please do check them out and maybe throw a little bit of money their way to help with this. I would love to see the documentary get made and for these women become household names just like Ada, Grace, and Anita.

Also check out the WITI Hall of Fame For the ENAIC Programmers or just spend some time reading about some of the other women in the Hall of Fame. Wired Magazine also did an article on the women back in 97 which is a good read if your interested.

Resources used: Wikipedia, WITI,, and Wired Magazine