Born: 10 December, 1815 – London
Died: 27 November, 1852 – Marylebone
Known as: the enchantress of numbers
& the world's first computer programmer
Augusta Ada Byron, daughter of Lord Byron (yes, that one – notorious rake and poet) and his then-wife Annabella Milbanke, grew up quite unlike other young ladies of her time. Sure, her education featured the feminine necessities – needlework, dancing, deportment – but her mother, herself dubbed The Princess of Parallelograms, insisted on a more robust education for her daughter which included maths and science.
The young Ada was fascinated by mathematics and machinery, a passion which ran through her entire life. During her first season, elbow-to-elbow with the darlings of society, she met Charles Babbage, a renowned mathematician. Babbage had developed an invention called The Difference Machine, which he gushed about to the equally-enthralled Ada. To our modern eyes, this crude calculator was basic at best – in the 1800s, this was technology hurtling towards a new future. Babbage would become Ada’s mentor, continually writing to her for more than 20 years. She would offer her opinions on the incomplete prototype. He would write to her of his plans for further inventions.
In 1835, Ada met and married her husband, William King, becoming Countess of Lovelace when her husband was offered an earldom. With three children under her belt, she was no less passionate about mathematics. She employed a tutor to continue her education, and continued her correspondence with Babbage.
When Babbage invented the Analytical Engine – an enhanced version of his Difference Machine – Ada would become its main champion. She wrote a 20,000 word treatise on the machine (a translation of Luigi Federico Menabrea’s essay, which she amended significantly), which was published in 1843. This, most critics agree, was her significant contribution to computer science. In the notes, she developed the world’s first computer program, decades before the computer would even be known: the calculation of the seventh Bernoulli number.
Ada passed away at 36 from uterine cancer, after a life spent weaving art and science with remarkable ingenuity. It would be almost a century before her notes would come to mean anything. Later scholars decided Ada never wrote those notes (a sort of discrediting women in tech are woefully all too familiar with), dismissing her as simply deluded about her own talents. However, her writings would “become the core concept of the digital age,” said Walter Isaacson. And he was correct: her work, rediscovered in the mid-20th century, has inspired women in STEM, provided the name for a programming language, and inspired the American Ada Lovelace Day for women in technology.
She was a pioneer in technology, an advocate for the beauty in mathematics, and – like her father, and like her mother – passionate about “poetical science,” that beguiling combination of mathematics and imagination.