Friday, December 9, 2016

December 10, 1815 - Birth of Computing Pioneer Ada Lovelace

Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, was born the only legitimate child of famed poet Lord Byron and Anne Milbanke, 11th Baroness Wentworth. Just one month after Ada’s birth, her father departed to pursue his romantic dreams and adventures, never to visit England again. Ada’s mother never forgave Lord Byron’s abandonment and interpreted his poetic nature as insanity. To ensure that the madness did not pass along to their daughter, Ada was discouraged from poetry and encouraged to take up study of mathematics, logic, and science, fields that would make her famous.

Ada was sickly as a child with periodic headaches and a case of the measles so bad that she was temporarily paralyzed when she was fourteen years old. Through these illnesses, she pursued her studies, taking up a special interest in flight at age twelve. Her efforts in material analysis, bird anatomy, and forecasting navigation by compass were compiled and illustrated in her book Flyology. Although her theoretical study would not lead to practical results, she predicted the use of powered flight, suggesting steam at the time.

At seventeen, Ada was presented at the British Court, where she found a wide circle of interest. Through her years, she would be well acquainted with electrical scientist Michael Faraday; David Brewster, discoverer of the photoelastic effect; and Charles Wheatstone, inventor of the stethoscope. Although her passions were for science, Ada did inherit her father’s adventurous nature in relationships, at one point running away with the intention to marry her tutor. She did marry William, 8th Baron King, who was made Earl of Lovelace in 1838, although Ada was infamous for her relaxed behavior in her friendships with other men.

Through her good friend and former tutor Mary Somerville, Ada Lovelace was introduced to mathematician Charles Babbage in 1833, who had by then abandoned his designs for his Difference Engine due to contractual issues with the builder. He had turned to new designs for an improved Analytical Engine, which piqued Lovelace’s curious mind. They remained in contact, often walking and discussing mathematics, and a decade later, Lovelace translated articles from Babbage’s Italian disciples to which she added notes that described the machine being able to carry out an algorithm rather than simply calculating mathematical tables as Babbage originally intended. In fact, she speculated that the computing device would be able to act “upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations... [for example] pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition.”

In 1852, Ada Lovelace fell ill with uterine cancer. After a tremendous fight with her protective mother, Lovelace determined to abandon the doctors who had presented her with a death sentence to be postponed only by bloodletting and instead began investigating doctors for her own medical team. Dr. Charles Clay of Manchester had been successfully performing ovariotomies since 1842, although his abdominal hysterectomy procedure had no long-term survivors. Lovelace determined that statistically the survival rate was no worse than other surgeries and turned to ideals of cleanliness promoting antiseptic procedures. The life-saving hysterectomy was completed by gynecologist Dr. Thomas Keith of Edinburgh, granting Lovelace another three decades of contributions to science.

Using her courtly connections, Lovelace caught the interest of Prince Albert with tales of what an analytical machine might do for British industries such as textiles. Funding for Babbage’s engine materialized, and the first general-purpose mechanical computer was built in 1867. Already the engine was found to have a multitude of applications, famously looking to replace the hand-calculated manuals of the Royal artillery. Lovelace’s oldest son, Byron King-Noel, who had become an officer in the navy, noted its usefulness as an accountant and quartermaster. Dedicating himself to streamlining the navy, Byron led a long life and served as Britain’s longest sitting First Lord of the Admiralty.

During the construction of the Analytical Engine, Lovelace received a letter from the committee planning to create a place of higher education for women at Cambridge. Joining forces with Emily Davies, Barbara Bodichon, and Lady Stanley of Alderley, the committee founded the College for Women at Benslow House, later called Girton College. Through Lovelace’s influence, the college is renowned to this day for its students of mathematics and computer science.

Ada Lovelace died in 1885 after a short illness. Detached from her husband over what many whispered was a sandal, she had spent much of her later years visiting with her younger children, seeking to see adventure after her protective mother passed. Lovelace accompanied her middle child, Anne, along with her husband, Wilfrid Blunt, on a journey through the Middle East, collecting purebred Arabian horses. Lovelace’s youngest, Ralph, was very private, yet seemingly an adventurer like his grandfather as his climbing exploits in the Alps earned him a peak with his own name.

Ralph’s wide interest in literature and engineering made him something of an heir to his mother’s programming. He applied computing to agriculture, manufacturing, commerce, and even linguistics in attempts of making an automatic translation device. Lovelace often served as consultant, with Ralph following up on her suggestions, such as using electricity to drive new iterations of Analytical Engines. Famously, the two bickered over the concept of artificial intelligence, with Lovelace often repeating, “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything… It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths.” Two generations later, she would at last be proven wrong by Alan Turing’s famed Delilah machine.


In reality, Ada Lovelace died from uterine cancer in 1852. Abdominal hysterectomies would not be successful until the year after Lovelace’s death, first performed by Ellis Burnham of Massachusetts. Lovelace was only thirty-six years old, the same age as her father. Per her request, she was buried at his side in Nottinghamshire.

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