Ada Lovelace, an indirect and reciprocal influence

Celebrating women in technology and the curious mind of Ada Lovelace

By Amy Jollymore
October 14, 2013
Ada Lovelace portrait Ada Lovelace portrait (source: Wikimedia Commons)

When I heard that Ada Lovelace Day was coming, I questioned myself, “What do I actually know about Ada Lovelace?” The sum total of my knowledge: Ada was the first woman programmer and the Department of Defense honored her contributions to computation in 1979 by naming its common programming language Ada.

A few Ada biographies later, I know Augusta Ada Lovelace to be an incredibly complex woman with a painful life story, one in which math, shame, and illness were continuously resurfacing themes. Despite all, Ada tirelessly pursued her passion for mathematics, making her contributions to computing undeniable and her genius all the more clear. Her accomplishments continue to serve as an inspiration to women throughout the world.

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Born to Love-Hate Mathematics

When Ada was born in 1815, her infamous father, the poet Lord Byron wrote, “the child of love—though born in bitterness, and nurtured in convulsion.” (Himself, Lord Byron was known as, “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”) Ada was born to opposites—or complements, depending on your view: Ada’s mother, Lady Byron, was affectionately called “Princess of the Parallelogram” by Lord Bryon during their courtship. She was obsessed with discipline, order, and ruled her life—and Ada’s—through objective facts. Her inverse, Lord Byron, was a romantic poet who lived by self-indulgence, lust, and trusted the subjectivity of his imagination.

Despite the rich DNA of math and poetry that Ada inherited, she was permitted to love only one: mathematics. This was her mother’s influence. Her mother was a calculating woman, according to Lord Byron. Following their separation, he referred to her as “Mathematical Medea,” and depicted her mathematical nature in his poem of sixteen cantos, Don Juan: “her favorite science was…mathematical…her thoughts were theorems, her words a problem…she was a walking calculation…in short…a prodigy.” Elsewhere in the poem this biting line appears: “T is a pity learned virgins ever wed.”

The publication of Byron’s poem followed on the heels of Lady Byron’s own publication—her autobiography, which was essentially literary damage-control and her way of publicly asserting the “true” story of her marriage to Lord Byron. Had it been a modern Hollywood divorce, Lady Byron’s autobiography would have been an exclusive People magazine cover story and Lord Byron’s side would’ve been revealed in an intimate Diane Sawyer interview.

The separation pained both sides. Lord Byron left London when Ada was five weeks old and never saw his daughter or wife again. Lady Byron moved to the country and raised Ada in isolation, shielded from gossip-hungry Londoner tongues—and not once permitted Ada to wonder aloud about her father.

And, yet, Ada eventually challenged her mother to acknowledge what she felt herself—she was, undeniably, partially her father’s daughter. In a letter, she pleaded: “You will not concede me philosophical poetry. Invert the order! Will you give me poetical philosophy, poetical science?”

Mathematics as Chastity Belt 

When she was seventeen, Ada had a big year. She had an affair, had her official debut, and saw the computing invention that would change her life—Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine.

The legal age for marriage in London had been lowered from 21 to 18 years, luckily for Ada’s mother; Ada had her debut in Court, wearing white satin and tulle, just two months after the discovery of her affair with her shorthand tutor, William Turner. (Ada generously explained to her attorney (who, was, incidentally, in love with her) that she only went as far as one could go without “connection.”) Turner the tutor was fired and Ada prescribed that era’s popular cure for lust-laden young women: horseback riding.

With her libido thusly in check, Ada attended one of inventor and mathematician Charles Babbage’s soirees. There, she witnessed a demonstration of the Difference Engine, the most advanced calculating machine ever built. Ada’s keen first impression of the Engine was noticed by a friend of the family, Sophia De Morgan:

While other visitors gazed at the working of this beautiful instrument with the sort of expression, and I dare say the sort of feeling, that some savages are said to have shown on first seeing a looking-glass or hearing a gun—if, indeed, they had as strong an idea of its marvelousness—Miss Byron, young as she was, understood its working, and saw the great beauty of the invention.

Ada’s intellect, clearly, had been noticed.

Before long, Ada’s libidinal issue resurfaced. She planned to use intense academic study to snuff out her wild longings. She was eighteen. Appealing to her mother’s friend Dr. King, she wrote:

I must cease to think of living for pleasure or self gratification; and there is but one sort of excitement, if indeed it can be called by that name, which I think allowable for me at present, viz: that of study and intellectual improvement. I find that nothing but very close & 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.

Dr. King responded to Ada:

My dearest Ada

You are quite right in supposing that your chief resource and safeguard at present, is in a course of severe intellectual study. For this purpose there is no subject to be compared to Mathematics and Natural Philosophy.

Alas, the cold water that was intended to extinguish her wildness—mathematics—became the kindling that fueled her fire. Ada’s return to the study of mathematics was a rebirth. Unfortunately her enthusiasm, long hours of study, and reading and thinking beyond the assigned texts appalled Dr. King. He sent her religious texts to read instead.

The Enchantress of Numbers

In 1835, at nineteen, Ada married William King the eighth Lord Ockham and had three children over four years’ time (William later became the Earl of Lovelace and Ada the Countess of Lovelace). She’d kept up with her studies but, after her third child, craved another mathematics rebirth. She studied excitedly for two years with Augustus De Morgan and grew confident—some say overly so—in her mind’s abilities. She wrote this to her mother:

And now I must tell you what my opinion of my own mind & powers is exactly; —the result of a most accurate study of myself with a view to my future plans, during many months. I believe myself to possess a most singular combination of qualities exactly fitted to make me pre-eminently a discoverer of the hidden realities of nature. You will not mistake this assertion either for a wild enthusiasm, or for the result of any disposition to self-exaltation.

Not a few biographers have cited Ada’s, er, confident assertions about her mind as evidence of the mania of manic-depression or of her being a sociopath. Either, or both, may be true. Ada often referred in letters to “mania” and her tireless mind—when she was not lapsing into illness.

Finally, Ada was ready to reach out to Babbage. Not only did she want to work with him and his Engine, she seemed compelled, as if by a driving vision, to work with him. In 1841, she wrote to him:

I am very anxious to talk to you. I will give you a hint on what. It strikes me that at some future time, (it might be even within 3 or 4 years, or it might be many years hence), my head may be made by you subservient to some of your purposes & plans. If so, if ever I could be worthy or capable of being used by you, my head will be yours. And it is on this that I wish to speak most seriously to you.

Her zeal didn’t deter Babbage. Actually, Ada’s timing was perfect. The funding Babbage had received from the British government for building his Difference Engine was terminated once he told them (after a decade of funding) that he wanted to scrap the half-completed Engine and move onto the next incarnation. It was the Analytical Engine that he had in mind. Just as Ada had perceived the power of the first Engine, she immediately grasped the remarkable potential for the Analytical Engine.

Ada’s contribution to the history of computing came in the form of her translation of an article that described the Analytical Engine’s capabilities. Its author was mathematician Luigi Menabra. Ada translated Menabra’s Sketch of The Analytical Engine and added seven original notes of her own. Note G is The One—the note that has become known as the world’s first computer program. This is just a short excerpt from the second paragraph of the 41-paragraph Note G:

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. Its province is to assist us in making available what we are already acquainted with. This it is calculated to effect primarily and chiefly of course, through its executive faculties; but it is likely to exert an indirect and reciprocal influence on science itself in another manner. For, in so distributing and combining the truths and the formulæ of analysis, that they may become most easily and rapidly amenable to the mechanical combinations of the engine, the relations and the nature of many subjects in that science are necessarily thrown into new lights, and more profoundly investigated.

The remarkable thing was that Ada saw beyond the obvious functionality of the Engine as a machine for which a user would input punch cards to be processed, which would then be outputted in another form—she alone envisioned that not only numbers but symbols could be inputs:

Again, it [the Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine . . . Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.

Though the sketches for the Analytical Engine were Babbage’s, the vision of its computing potential was all Ada.

Likely to Exert an Indirect and Reciprocal Influence on Science Itself

Ada was more like her father than could be rigorously educated out of her by her mother—she was driven, manic, and held creativity in high esteem. But throughout her life, and as she descended into death, Ada paid the price for her Byron shadow. Like her father whom she never met, who died at age 35, Ada also died young, at the age of 36.

As Ada was slowly dying of cervical cancer—even while hemorrhaging and wincing in pain—she was refused painkillers. Her mother didn’t believe in them. She believed in mesmerism. (Ada discouraged her mother from visiting her for a few months. In part, she didn’t want to deal with her mother’s judgement about her recently revealed gambling debts.)  Maybe Lady Byron was a calculating woman. Perhaps Lord Byron was right about her after all. Because she had an agenda: Ada had to purge her sins. There would be no opium. One day, after Ada had convulsed for 48 hours, her mother got a confession from Ada about an affair, which she promptly shared with Ada’s grieving husband.

It was childhood all over again—discipline and confession. Apparently because Lady Byron wanted to root out the potential in Ada for Byron traits, she began Ada’s education at age four. She was cautioned against it, but Lady Byron ran Ada’s lessons from dawn to dusk. Making Ada lay unmoving on the floor or stay shut in a closet were punishments concluded only once Ada apologized in writing (for example: “I was rather foolish in saying that I did not like arithmetic… The sums can be done better, if I tried, than they are.”)

Throughout her life Ada suffered from unexplained illnesses with symptoms ranging from stomach pain and blurred vision to mania and ‘heart attacks.’ It’s possible that Ada had porphyria, “The Royal Psychosis,” which may have afflicted Charles Darwin, Emily Dickinson, and King George III. While it’s impossible to know for sure, Ada’s lifelong symptoms align with porphyria: severe abdominal pain, vomiting, muscle pain and weakness, heart palpitations, epilepsy, double-vision, sensory loss, water retention, delirium, mania, and psychotic-like behavior—which clear up remarkably fast, as Ada’s illnesses often did.

And yet, Ada had the last—no, eternal—say about one thing. She made sure that she’d be buried next to her father. She requested that her coffin be placed in the Byron family vault touching her father’s own coffin, which it does.

* * *

Ada Lovelace is to be admired, deeply, for her perseverance. Despite her health issues and her mother’s oppressiveness, Ada kept on. She knew she had a gift for mathematics, and her love for it was insatiable. She returned to mathematics again and again for complex reasons—as a moral compass and that which most nourished her mind. The most important lesson Ada has for the minds of today is this: it’s critically important to reach out and connect with other curious minds. Every time Ada reached out, shared observations, collaborated, taught others, or asked her endless questions, she grew.


Post topics: Software Engineering