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Tuesday, March 10, 2020


March is here and it’s time to share stories about women who have made a difference in our world.
On one hand, I’m grateful there is a month when we acknowledge women’s contributions; on the other, I would like to be in a world where everyone’s contributions are honored by everyone, and there is no need to distinguish those people by some artificial grouping.
That world will come, but not in my lifetime.
Today I want to draw attention to a woman who thinking was a hundred years ahead of her time, and you may or may not have ever heard of.
Ada Lovelace -- born Augusta Ada Byron (1815); died Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1852) -- is considered by much of the computer science profession, as the world's first computer programmer and the first person to recognize the full potential of a computing machine.
Lovelace wrote the world’s first machine algorithm for an early computing machine developed by Charles Babbage, that existed only on paper. Of course, someone had to be the first, but Lovelace was a woman, and this was in the 1840s.
Ada Lovelace was a brilliant mathematician, thanks in part to opportunities that were denied most women of the time, but credit for her significant insights were played down, then forgotten, by the male-dominated world of mathematics and computing. Her contributions have been recognized only recently. Better late than never.
Photo: Alfred Edward Chalon / Science Museum Group
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Her achievements in computer programming are not the only interesting things about Ada Lovelace.
She was born Augusta Ada Byron, the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron and Anne Isabelle (called Annabella) Noel Milbanke. Lord Byron expected a boy and was disappointed the child was of the female persuasion.
Ada was named after Byron's half-sister, Augusta Leigh, and he called her Ada … but not for very long. The marriage ended about two months after Ada was born. Lord Byron left England shortly after that, and Ada, his only legitimate offspring, had no contact with him during her lifetime.  She was eight years old when he died, and never even saw a portrait of him until her 21st birthday.
Ada Byron at seventeen - Artist unknown
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Lord Byron must have left Annabella with “a bad taste in her mouth” for romantic poets, because she did everything possible to make her daughter Ada as unlike her poetical father as she could. Lady Byron herself had mathematical training--Byron had called his wife his Princess of Parallelograms–and she made sure Ada had extensive education in mathematics, logic, and music, the disciplines Annabella considered necessary to divert dangerous poetic tendencies…which Lady Byron considered “insane”. 
Although Ada and Lady Byron shared a love of mathematics, she and her mother were never close, and she was raised primarily by her maternal grandmother.
Lord George Gordon Noel Byron – poet
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Despite suffering poor health during her childhood and being bed-ridden for a year, Lovelace diligently pursued her study of mathematics. At twelve she designed a sophisticated flying machine powered by steam.
Her late teens were busy eventful years (1833-1835). Ada had an affair with her tutor and tried to elope, but was recognized and returned to her mother who hushed up the disgrace. The same year, her friend, Mary Somerville, introduced her to Charles Babbage, a professor of mathematics at Cambridge. He found her mind brilliant, and they formed a lifelong friendship during which they wrote long letters about mathematics, logic, and his plans to build a difference machine, a kind of calculator.
Having been raised in an elite London society, Ada was introduced to court, and by 1834 she had become a regular there. She charmed everyone, impressed them with her brilliant mind, and had an impressive circle of acquaintances including Charles Dickens, and Michael Faraday.
In 1835, Ada married William King-Noel, and had three children, born in 1836, 1837, and 1839. She suffered from illness after the second child. Three years later, King inherited a noble title, and the couple became the Earl and Countess of Lovelace. The family and its fortunes were very much directed by the domineering Lady Byron, to which William-King raised no opposition.
In the mean time, Lovelace’s friend Babbage abandoned the construction of his difference machine in favor of a more advanced idea for an Analytical Engine. He found financial support from Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea for his new project. In 1842, Menabrea published a paper in French on the subject of the engine. Babbage recruited his friend Ada to translate the document.
She spent nine intense months during 1842-1843 translating the paper and appending a set of her own notes containing a detailed description of how the proposed Analytrical Engine could be programmed to compute Bernoulli numbers. Her addendum -- Ada’s claim to fame -- was three time longer than the paper itself.
Unfortunately, the men of mathematics and history have spent a lot of time in the past one hundred years trying to discredit her and minimize her contribution. As late as 1990, Allan G. Bromley, in his article Difference and Analytical Engines, states “
“Not only is there no evidence that Ada ever prepared a program for the Analytical Engine, but her correspondence with Babbage shows that she did not have the knowledge to do so”
According to the Doron Swade, museum curator and author, specializing in Babbage and the history of computing, writes,In Babbage's world his engines were bound by number...What Lovelace saw—what Ada Byron saw—was that number could represent entities other than quantity. So once you had a machine for manipulating numbers, if those numbers represented other things, letters, musical notes, then the machine could manipulate symbols of which number was one instance, according to rules.
It is this fundamental transition from a machine which is a number cruncher to a machine for manipulating symbols according to rules that is the fundamental transition from calculation to computation—to general-purpose computation—and looking back from the present high ground of modern computing, if we are looking and sifting history for that transition, then that transition was made explicitly by Ada in that 1843 paper.”
Even critics of the “Ada Lovelace, world's-first-computer-programmer claim” seem to agree that she was the only person of the time to foresee the potential of the analytical engine as a machine capable of expressing entities other than quantities, the evolution from number crunching device (a calculator) to a general purpose computer.

Due to lack of funding, Babbage never completed the building of the Analytical Engine, but the design is considered by historians as the first general purpose computer. A portion of the machine was completed in 1910 by Babbage’s son Henry, and it was able to perform basic calculations as designed.
Trial model of a part of the Analytical Engine, built by Babbage, as displayed at the Science Museum (London)
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Apparently, after that, Ada continued her life as a countess, a mother, and a student of mathematics, phrenology and mesmerism, along with a number of flirtations and gambling. In 1851, she formed a syndicate and attempted to create a mathematical model for successful large bets. The failure of this venture left her in debt to the syndicate, and she had to fess up to her husband. Presumably, he paid her debts, but no source I used commented on that. However, from the looks of their home, her husband probably had enough pocket money to reimburse the syndicate.

In 1852, after a few months of illness, Ada Lovelace died at the age of thirty-six – the same age as her father when he died – from uterine cancer. She was buried next to her father, at her request, in Huckinall, Nottinghamshire at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene.
Despite the controversy about the mathematical ability of the Countess of Lovelace, her contributions and foresight have made a difference in the world. After all, Babbage himself referred to her as the "Enchantress of Numbers.”
She is remembered and honored in many ways, including
Ada Lovelace Award: Created in 1981 by the Association for Women in Computing.
Lovelace Medal: Awarded by the British Computer Society (BCS) since.1998. This organization has also initiated an annual competition for women students.
National Ada Lovelace Day: On 27 July 2018, Senator Ron Wyden submitted, in the US Senate, the designation of 9 October 2018 as National Ada Lovelace Day: "To honor the life and contributions of Ada Lovelace as a leading woman in science and mathematics". The resolution (S.Res.592) was considered, and agreed to without amendment and with a preamble by unanimous consent
The acknowledgement is late in coming. I believe that in the future she will still be a person of importance in the computing field.
Travel to Foreign Lands for Romance and Intrigue

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