Augusta Ada Byron Lovelace
In the Bodleian Library at Oxford University there is a massive collection of letters, diaries, and papers concerning the life of the world's first computer programmer, Ada Byron Lovelace. These items were collected by her son, Ralph Milbanke, second Earl of Lovelace. Ada lived over 150 years ago and wrote the program for a machine that had not yet been built. She was a woman whose intuition allowed her to see beyond what was to what could be.
Ada Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron on December 10, 1815. She was the only legitimate daughter of the poet, George Gordon Noel (Lord Byron) and his wife Annabella Milbanke. This match between one of the most popular, romantic men in England and his wealthy bride was short lived; Annabella left him when Ada was a month old and Lord Byron never saw his daughter again. He died in 1824 of a fever. When Ada was three, Lord Byron wrote the following words:
Ada's family wealth allowed her the luxury of the best tutors. Her mother thought she was too imaginative, so Ada spent a great deal of time studying math and science. Ada attended social occasions after her coming out at age seventeen. At one of these social events in 1833, she met Charles Babbage, a middle-aged inventor who was then displaying his Difference Engine, an early calculator.
Ada showed her independent streak by writing a "declaration of independence" to her mother:
Ada spent another year studying with a mathematician, Mary Somerville. Then the time came for her to find a husband, and a family friend introduced her to William King.
Although he was a member of the aristocracy and owned two estates, Ockham Park and Ashley Combe, William King did not have a large income, because the estates also supported several members of his family. However, he was educated and well-traveled, and Ada's dowry was generous. The two were married July 8, 1835.
Ada and William King had three children; Byron, born May 12, 1836; Anne Isabella born September 22, 1837; and Ralph, born July 2, 1839. During this period, William King became a member of Parliament and took his seat in the House of Lords where he assumed the title first earl of Lovelace. Ada's ancestry included the Lovelace's of Hurley, but the title had died out. Ada became countess of Lovelace.
Ada continued her studies of mathematics and continued to correspond with Charles Babbage. In the early 1840's, Babbage was displaying his Analytical Engine to the French; a machine which could make some calculations, store them, analyze what to do next, and then return to complete the problem. Ada Lovelace was asked to translate the French document as she was well-versed both in French and mathematics. As Babbage made improvements to the machine, Ada's translation reflected ideas of her own. She wrote to Babbage in July 1843:
Ada's final translation was over three times as long as the original document. Babbage commented, "The more I read you notes, the more surprised I am at them." Ada's proposed uses for the Analytical Engine that not even the inventor had considered. Her notes detailed how the machine could be programmed to compute a complex sequence of numbers.
Two months after Ada's translation was published, however, the government sent Babbage notice regretting that they had to abandon the machine. Babbage spent the rest of his life working on other models of his calculating machine.
Ada spent her remaining years controversially. Her mother and husband were often at odds with each other as Ada traveled and secretly gambled. Her debts grew extreme, and she often had to sell family heirlooms in order to cover the sums. Her mother would find out and retrieve the jewels, only to have Ada sell them yet again.
Ada was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and on her deathbed, her mother insisted that she confess her sins. Among the admissions was that of an affair with John Crosse, a scientist who experimented with electromagnetism. During her travels, Ada had seen the estate of her late father and expressed a desire to be buried next to him. Anticipating her death, Ada had sent instructions to Babbage regarding her personal letters and business affairs and had sent personal items to John Crosse. Crosse covered some of Ada's gambling debt and was paid off by the family to return over 100 intimate letters from Ada which were subsequently destroyed.
The world forgot about Ada Byron Lovelace until 1954, when a researcher found her work. Even though a mathematical error was found in her original translation, the mistake does not diminish her most important accomplishment: She envisioned multiple uses for a machine she never saw.
In 1974, the United States Department of Defense decided to certify one computer language for all of its tasks. Six years later, on Ada's 165th birthday, the Ada Joint Program Office was created to introduce and support the Ada computer language.