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Ada Lovelace: Mathematician and Computer Scientist

Ada Lovelace - Mathematician and Writer
Ada Lovelace is considered the first computer programmer [Image courtesy of JSTOR Daily]


WOMEN WHO DESERVE TO BE CELEBRATED: As part of its social equity agenda, Eco Profit is commencing a Blog series featured on selected women from history. The thought behind this is driven by the lack of acknowledgement in society for many of the dynamic discoveries and achievements of women from the past, including the recent past. Unfortunately, in many cases the term Matilda effect applies which is the attribution of the achievements of women to their male colleagues.


Born two centuries ago, Ada Lovelace was a pioneer of computing science. She took part in writing the first published program and was a computing visionary, recognizing for the first time that computers could do much more than just calculations.

Ada Lovelace was born in London, England, UK on December 10, 1815. She was named Augusta Ada Byron. Her surname changed after she married.

Lord Byron
Ada's parents were British poet Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke. While Lord Byron has been accused of abandoning his family, other research suggests that Byron's marriage was doomed by the gulf between Byron and his unimaginative and humorless wife; and in January 1816 Annabella left Byron to live with her parents [Image courtesy of Britannica].

Her father was the brilliant, yet notorious poet Lord Byron (mad, bad and dangerous to know!) and her mother was Anne Isabella Milbanke. Her father was one of the greats of poetry, but his personality was unstable. Her mother was highly intelligent, had been well-educated by private tutors, and was particularly enthusiastic about mathematics and the sciences.

Ada’s father abandoned his wife and daughter, leaving Britain forever when Ada was one month old. He died in Greece when Ada was eight years old. Ada never knew him. Ada’s mother, Lady Byron, seems to have had little or no affection for her daughter and had very little contact with her. The young girl was brought up by her maternal grandmother and servants. Her grandmother died when Ada was just seven years old, and Ada herself suffered long spells of poor health in both childhood and later.

One thing her mother insisted upon was that Ada should get a high-quality education. In those days, there were no places for girls in the United Kingdom’s universities. However, girls from wealthy, aristocratic families could be educated to a high level by private tutors. And this is how Ada was educated.

Her mother wanted Ada to concentrate particularly hard on mathematics and science. She had two reasons for this:

  • These were her own favourite subjects.

  • She was worried that insanity ran in Ada’s father’s family and wanted her daughter to stay away from her father’s interests, such as poetry.


Lady Byron also ensured Ada had tuition in music and French, since musical ability and the ability to read and make conversation in French were socially desirable. Her mother was very strict with Ada. In fact, she seems to have been something of a tyrant, demanding that the young girl work very hard and punishing her with periods of isolation if she thought she had not worked hard enough. Lady Byron’s desire was that her daughter would become a highly disciplined, serious person – the opposite of her father.

Ada’s life changed forever on June 5, 1833, when aged 17 she met Charles Babbage at a party, a Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge (a position once held by Isaac Newton and held more recently by Stephen Hawking). Babbage learned that both Lady Byron and her daughter were knowledgeable about mathematics and invited them to see a small-scale version of the calculating machine he was working on called the difference engine. Babbage had become fed up with people making mistakes in lengthy calculations, and his idea was to build an infallible steam-driven or hand-cranked calculating machine. Ada was completely captivated by the concept. but there was little she could do to help Babbage with his work. However, she sent a message to Babbage requesting copies of the machine’s blueprints, because she was determined to understand how it worked.

Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace's notes are perceived as the earliest and most comprehensive account of computers and predicted today's AI [image courtesy of National Institute of Standards and Technology]

Ada and Lady Byron also arranged to visit factories where they could see steam driven machines at work and learn as much as they could about mechanical devices. These were highly unusual activities for an aristocratic woman and her daughter!

A Jacquard loom and punch cards
A Jacquard loom and punch cards. A first step in machine language. [Image: George Williams.]

An important part of Ada’s education was to see the Jacquard loom in operation. The Jacquard loom was a machine that produced textiles with patterns woven into them. Joseph Marie Jacquard had invented it in 1801.

The Jacquard loom was controlled by punch cards, with one card equal to one row of the textile being woven. If the card was punched, the loom thread would be raised. If the card was not punched, the loom thread would be left alone. In other words, the punch cards issued instructions to the machine. They were a simple language, or putting it another way, machine code.

Ada continued her independent pursuit of mathematical knowledge. She became friends with one of the finest female mathematicians of her time, Mary Somerville, who discussed modern mathematics with her, set her higher-level mathematics problems, and talked in detail about Charles Babbage’s difference engine.

Mary Somerville
Mary Somerville (one of Ada's instructors), was one of the first two women to be permitted to join the Royal Astronomical Society. Through Somerville, Ada Byron met mathematician and computer pioneer Charles Babbage. [Image courtesy of New Scientist].

In 1835, at the age of 19, Ada married William King, the Earl of Lovelace, with whom she would have three children between 1836 and 1839.

In 1841 she began working on mathematics again and was given advanced work by Professor Augustus De Morgan of University College London. She also continued to learn advanced mathematics through correspondence with Mary Somerville. All the time, she kept Babbage’s difference engine in mind.

In 1842 Ada Lovelace heard of a paper called Sketch of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, by Luigi Federico Menabrea, an engineer. The paper was written in French. Menabrea had listened to lectures by Babbage and written them up. By this time, Babbage had moved on from the difference engine to a much higher-level computer concept, the analytical engine.

The analytical engine and Ada Lovelace.
The analytical engine. [Image courtesy of Pamela Hawley (Living & Giving blog)].

The analytical engine would be capable of much more sophisticated calculations than the original difference engine. Indeed, the analytical engine concept was completely groundbreaking, and a work of incredible genius on Babbage’s part; it was the world’s first programmable computer. In modern terms, the analytical engine would be described as Turing-complete. It featured an arithmetic logic portion, control flow by loops and conditional branching, and separate memory – and all of this to be built using mechanical parts and powered by hand-cranking or steam!

Ada Lovelace got hold of Menabrea’s work and translated it into English. Babbage read her translation and asked her why she had not written such a paper herself, because she was more than capable. Perhaps she could now add her own thoughts to Menabrea’s work?

Ada Lovelace responded by adding notes to her translation of Menabrea’s work. Her notes were three times more extensive than the original work. When her English translation of Sketch of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine was published, most of the work published was actually her own.

She added algebraic workings to the notes for how an analytical engine could perform calculations. Babbage himself took on one of the trickiest calculations – Bernoulli Numbers – and sent it to Ada to include in her work, but she detected and corrected what Babbage himself described as ‘a grave error.’ In her paper, she included the world’s first published computer program, or algorithm – this was the Bernoulli number algorithm – and hence she is often cited as the world’s first computer programmer. It would be fair to say, though, that Babbage contributed much of this section – precisely how much is the subject of academic debate.

Ada Lovelace broke new ground in computing, identifying an entirely new concept. She realized that an analytical engine could go beyond numbers. This was the first ever perception of a modern computer – not just a calculator – but a machine that could contribute to other areas of human endeavour, for example composing music.

Ada Lovelace had grasped that anything that could be converted into numbers, such as music, or the alphabet (language) or images, could then be manipulated by computer algorithms. An analytical engine had the potential to revolutionize the way the whole world worked, not just the world of mathematics.

Alan Turing
Alan Turing [Image courtesy of Famous Mathematicians]]

Ada Lovelace became increasingly unwell after she wrote her translation and died young.

About 90 years after Ada Lovelace wrote her translation, Alan Turing entered the field. Turing, of course, was a genius. As a young man he had read Ada Lovelace’s work, among many other papers he read.

The codebreakers at Bletchley Park in the United Kingdom, where Turing worked during World War 2, built and used the Colossus series of computers – the world’s first electronic computers. In doing so, they actually put Lovelace’s visionary concept of a computer to work.

Coded text from German messages was converted to numbers which underwent statistical analysis by the computer before being converted back into text that could be read and understood by humans.

Many describe Ada Lovelace as the mother of our modern concept of computing? Ada’s work lived in suspended animation, being rediscovered and adopted by Alan Turing. It is worth noting too that the Pentagon and US military’s programmers named their own computing language Ada.



Winton has been in the carbon management industry for sixteen years. Winton brings his accounting skills and climate risk management expertise together to show corporations and government agencies how to adapt their financial systems to meet the new sustainability and carbon reporting requirements whilst increasing operational efficiency, productivity, and profits.

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