In a world of men, for men, and made by men, there were a lucky few women who could stand up and be noticed. In the early nineteenth century, Lovelace Augusta Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, made her mark among the world of men that has influenced even today’s world. She was the “Enchantress of Numbers” and the “Mother of Computer Programming.” The world of computers began with the futuristic knowledge of one Charles Babbage and one Lady Lovelace, who appeared to know more about Babbage’s Analytical Engine than he himself knew.
At the time of Lovelace’s discoveries, women were only just beginning to take part in the scientific world, and her love of mathematics drove her straight into the world of men. Her upbringing, her search for more knowledge, her love of mathematics, and her inherited writing abilities brought to life what we know today as computer programming or computer science.
Lovelace Augusta Byron was born to the famous British poet George Gordon Byron (Lord Byron), and Anne Isabella Milbanke on December 10, 1815.
Her parents marriage lasted the short time of one year, and one month after Lovelace was born, Lord Byron left. From that point in time until her death, Lovelace’s life was governed by her domineering mother. As a child, Lovelace’s tutors and governesses were all instructed to teach her the “discipline” of mathematics and music in such a way that Lovelace would never find the love of writing that her father possessed. For fear that Lovelace would develop the same mood swings and torments that her father had, Lovelace was not allowed to really read her father’s poetry. There were claims that Annabella, as her mother was called, kept Lord Byron’s poetry in a case that Lovelace could access at anytime. She was even encouraged to read the poetry later on in life, but the “discipline,” as Annabella called it, of mathematics had been instilled into Lovelace and her spark for poetry was smothered. It was by smothering Lovelace’s tendencies towards poetry that she ended up studying the women’s forbidden subjects of mathematics and science. “Undoubtedly, Lovelace was better off not attending a school where she would have been obliged to follow the typical curriculum for young ladies of her class. Living a sheltered life among her mother’s circle of friends, Lovelace was better educated through governesses, tutors, and, later, independent study” (Nilson 64).
It was May 10, 1833 when Lovelace began venturing out into the world of adults. At this time, she attended parties and balls. She had a desire to meet other people who shared her love of mathematics, music, riding, and anything else that was new and interesting. Most of all, Lovelace wanted to meet Mary Somerville, the famous female mathematician who had just published The Mechanism of the Heavens, a book on mathematical astronomy. Mrs. Somerville was Lovelace’s hero, and later, she became a good friend and tutor. It was at a party that Lovelace met Charles Babbage, the famous inventor of the speedometer, skeleton key, the locomotive “cow catcher,” and the ophthalmoscope (used to examine the retina of the eye). In Babbage, Lovelace found “a constant intellectual companion in whom she found a match for her powerful understanding” (Perl 131). The friendship between Lovelace and Babbage would last for all her life, but the bond that Lovelace developed between Babbage’s work and her would last until present day. Being a woman, Lovelace was not allowed to explore her ideas with just anyone, but with Babbage, she went the full distance. She called herself his “fairy,” performing deeds for the good of his new invention, the Analytical Engine, and he referred to her as his “interpretress.” The evidence of these pet names is given only from the letters that they sent back and forth on a nearly daily basis. It is hard to imagine that the majority of Lovelace’s work was performed through letters, and personal contact fell to a minimum. The restrictions of the time for women required her to have an escort before she was married, and that left her mathematical knowledge to be gathered in the only discrete way possible: written communication.
While growing up, Lovelace had countless tutors and governesses, with whom she maintained contact most of her life. One of her tutors, Dr. William King, who was not at all fond of mathematics, was instructed to “operate” on Lovelace’s thirteen-year-old brain. After his services were no longer needed, Lovelace continued contact with Dr. King by way of letters, which proposed mathematical problems and equations. She searched for more in-depth mathematical knowledge that Dr. King did not possess as may be seen in one of his letters, “You will soon puzzle me in your studies,” he wrote (Baum 28). She read any mathematical books that she could find including Dionysius Lardner’s Euclid and Vince’s Plane and Spherical Trigonometry. Another of her tutor’s had been William Frend, who introduced to her yet another of her tutors, Augustus De Morgan, a famous knowledgeable mathematician and the husband of Frend’s daughter Sophia. Both Frend and De Morgan were Lovelace’s consultants throughout her work with Babbage on his Analytical Engine, a machine that would use punch-cards to calculate higher degrees of polynomials with ease and accuracy. She posed questions to them on mathematics that women otherwise were thought not to be able to understand, many of which they did not. De Morgan is quoted for writing that Lovelace “would have been ‘an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence’ but not, he suggested, if she had gone to the university (had it admitted women then), where the system would have demanded sacrifice of originality” (Baum 20). Her search for more knowledge in mathematics is what led to her amazing discoveries of how to make the Analytical Machine calculate problems and return accurate answers for everyone to see.
Lady Lovelace’s father, Lord Byron, was a poet who is still celebrated today. He had a skill with words that was passed on to his unknowing daughter. The evidence in her control over the written word was found when she translated Luigi Ferdico Menabrea’s “sketch” of Babbage’s Analytical Engine, written from the material he received in a lecture on the Analytical Engine given by Babbage. The piece was published for everyone to read, but it was written in French. Lovelace and Babbage saw then the need to publish an English version of the article, which Lovelace eagerly took as her chance to work with Babbage. Her knowledge of French was great, and she translated the piece with ease, but she became engrossed in the project, adding more details about the machine than the original article had. As work progressed, Lovelace began calling the new draft of how the Analytical Engine would work her unborn “child” or her “uncommonly fine baby.” She claimed that her child would “become a ‘man of the first magnitude and power’” (Baum 67). Her devotion to the project provided her with the opportunity to ignore her physical ailments, but to such a great extent that she became sickly for the rest of her life. Also, she ignored her family and her womanly chores in order to achieve the highest quality work she could. Her husband, Lord William King, Earl of Lovelace, actually encouraged her to work with Babbage and ignored her failure to take care of her family.
The “uncommonly fine baby” was the beginning and end of Lovelace’s mathematical “professional,” as she called her faith in mathematics in a letter written to Woronzow Greig, son of Mary Somerville. She poured her heart into her translation and into her “Notes,” which were bits of information that expanded on the reliability, need, and usefulness of the Analytical Engine and which were added to the translation for more detail. She spent countless hours having Babbage check and recheck her work, and in the end, she came up with a piece worthy of publication. The only problem was whether or not she should sign her masterpiece. As a woman, her “child” would have not been taken seriously and would have been looked at disapprovingly. This is evident in the reaction of the Edinburghi editors to an anonymous piece called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. The book was considered to have been written in a very feminine style and lacked knowledge. The editors speculated that the author was a female and concluded that it had the “trac[ing] therein the markings of a woman’s foot” (Baum 63). The author was later discovered to be one Robert Chambers to whom the editors greatly apologized. The scene made it difficult for Lovelace to sign her “child” for fear of that the paper’s miraculous findings and ideas would be ignored. At Babbage’s insistence, Lovelace signed the article “A.A.L.” and did the same with all her precious “Notes.” The piece was then published in 1844 and received rave reviews. Lovelace and Babbage never worked on such a project again, but they had tried to develop a sure method of gambling on horses; the method failed terribly, leaving the Lovelace’s in great debt.
Thirty years after Lovelace’s death on November 27, 1852, her full name was credited to the piece on the Analytical Engine. It was then, after Lovelace was no longer around to see it, that Lovelace finally had accomplished the task she claimed her father had passed on to her. “If he has transmitted to me any portion of that genius, I would use it to bring out great truths and principles. I think he has bequeathed this task to me. I have this feeling strongly; and there is a pleasure attending it” (Nilson 59). At that time, Lovelace had achieved another task that had not been foremost in her mind, but none-the-less had been there. She had taken her knowledge and turned it into something that people could use, but she had done this at a time when women were unable to attend science debates and mathematical meetings. Cambridge University did not admit women at the time, and only at the incessant begging of other mathematicians and scientists, like Babbage, were women even allowed to attend lectures at Cambridge. Women were gaining a step into the world of men, and the reason for their advances was due to the few women who had the desire and willpower to push their way into the forbidden world. Such women as Lovelace, Mary Somerville and Florence Nightingale opened a door to women that had otherwise been locked tight.
Lovelace’s “uncommonly fine child” was the beginning of programming. It set the Analytical Engine up to accept an input, make calculations based on the input, and produce some output for people to see. The Analytical Engine was, therefore, the design for the first general-purpose computer. Today’s computers are modeled after the plans that Babbage had created, and Lovelace had created the means to make it work. She had laid out a program and included within it several loops to compute the Bernoulli numbers. The prophetic insights of the woman, Ada Augusta Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, were greatly ahead of their time, and by some chance of fate, they were actually accepted in to the world of men. Lovelace gave birth to a new era of technology, and perhaps, that is the way it was meant to be. She struggled with her pregnancy and released a “child” like no other. That “child” became the basis for the programming languages we know today and the particular language that was named after its mother in 1977 by the U.S. Department of Defense. The language is called “ADA.”
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