British mathematician Augusta Ada Byron, who after marriage became Countess of Lovelace and was better known simply as Ada Lovelace, was born in London on December 10, 1815. Check out 10 surprising facts about the pioneering woman often cited as the world’s first computer programmer.
1. Lord Byron was her father.
Although Ada Lovelace was English poet Lord George Gordon Byron’s only legitimate child, he was hardly an exemplary father. The first words he spoke to his newly born daughter were, “Oh! What an implement of torture have I acquired in you!” The marriage between the erratic, abusive and womanizing poet and Lovelace’s mother, Lady Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron, was brief and unhappy. According to the new book “Lady Byron and Her Daughters” by Julia Markus, less than a month after the birth of their daughter, Lord Byron informed his wife of his intention to continue an affair with a stage actress and three days later wrote Lady Byron telling her to find a convenient day to leave their home. “The child will of course accompany you,” he added. Soon after, the poet left England and never saw his daughter again. He died when Lovelace was 8.
2. Fearing Lovelace would follow in her father’s footsteps, Lady Byron immersed her in mathematics.
Lady Byron, herself a mathematical wiz called “Princess of Parallelograms” by Lord Byron, believed a rigorous course of study rooted in logic and reason would enable her daughter to avoid the romantic ideals and moody nature of her father. From the age of 4, Lovelace was tutored in mathematics and science, an unusual course of study for a woman in 19th-century England.
3. At the age of 12, Lovelace conceptualized a flying machine.
After studying the anatomy of birds and the suitability of various materials, the young girl illustrated plans to construct a winged flying apparatus before moving on to think about powered flight. “I have got a scheme,” she wrote to her mother, “to make a thing in the form of a horse with a steamengine in the inside so contrived as to move an immense pair of wings, fixed on the outside of the horse, in such a manner as to carry it up into the air while a person sits on its back.”
4. The “father of the computer” was her mentor.
At the age of 17, Lovelace met inventor and mathematician Charles Babbage and watched him demonstrate a model portion of his difference engine, an enormous mathematical calculating machine that has led to his being dubbed the “father of the computer.” After becoming Babbage’s protégé, she translated into English an article written by military engineer—and future Italian prime minister—Luigi Menabrea about Babbage’s theoretical analytical engine. Lovelace augmented the translation with her own notes about the analytical engine that were three times as long as the original paper and published in an English journal in 1843 with only her initials, “A.A.L.” In Note G of her elaborate paper, Lovelace wrote of how the machine could be programmed with a code to calculate Bernoulli numbers, which some consider to be the first algorithm to be carried out by a machine and thus the first computer program.
5. She was a visionary who predicted that computers could do more than just crunch numbers.
Lovelace foresaw the multi-purpose functionality of the modern computer. Although Babbage believed the use of his machines was confined to numerical calculations, she mused that any piece of content—including music, text, pictures and sounds—could be translated to digital form and manipulated by machine. Lovelace wrote that 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… Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of [mathematical] expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”
6. She was a compulsive gambler.
Beginning in the 1840s, Lovelace began a gambling habit that contributed to her dwindling finances and forced her to secretly pawn the Lovelace family’s diamonds. According to “Lady Byron and Her Daughters,” Lovelace once lost £3,200 betting on the wrong horse at the Epsom Derby. “Ada, encouraged by con men, would turn her prodigious talents toward gambling and programming the outcomes of horse races,” wrote Markus, who added that a mysterious “book” that passed between Lovelace and Babbage once a week probably contained a program designed to predict horse-race results.
7. Charles Dickens read a passage from one of his novels to Lovelace on her deathbed.
Dickens and Lovelace likely met through Babbage in the 1830s, and the mathematician occasionally attended dinners at the writer’s London home. As Lovelace suffered from uterine cancer in August 1852, the famed British novelist visited his bed-ridden friend and, at her request, read a well-known scene from his popular 1848 novel “Dombey and Son” in which 6-year-old boy Paul Dombey dies. Three months later, Lovelace passed away on November 27, 1852.
8. Lovelace was buried next to the father she never knew.
Although Lovelace didn’t know Lord Byron, she maintained a life-long fascination with him and his works. After her death, she was buried at her request in the Byron family vault inside the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in the small English town of Hucknall. Her coffin was placed side-by-side with that of her father, who also passed away at the age of 36.
9. Her contributions to computing weren’t recognized until a century after her death.
Lovelace’s ideas about computing were so far ahead of their time that it took nearly a century for technology to catch up. While Lovelace’s notes on Babbage’s analytical engine gained little attention at the time they were originally published in 1843, they found a much wider audience when republished in B.V. Bowden’s 1953 book “Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines.” As the field of computer science dawned in the 1950s, Lovelace gained a new following in the digital age.
10. A computer programming language is named in Lovelace’s honor.
During the 1970s, the U.S. Department of Defense developed a high-order computer programming language to supersede the hundreds of different ones then in use by the military. When U.S. Navy Commander Jack Cooper suggested naming the new language “Ada” in honor of Lovelace in 1979, the proposal was unanimously approved. Ada is still used around the world today in the operation of real-time systems in the aviation, health care, transportation, financial, infrastructure and space industries.