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Ada's algorithm : how Lord Byron's daughter Ada Lovelace launched the digital age

Ada Lovelace was the only legitimate child of Lord Byron, the brilliant and disturbed poet who died at thirty-six after living a life of excessive debauchery.  Her mother came from a wealthy, fairly open-minded family, and for a woman at that time she received a somewhat decent education. The marriage lasted a little over a year, when Lady Byron took the young baby, and ran away from her controlling husband. Because Lord Byron had led a most profligate life, rife with an abuse of drugs and sex, it was one of Lady Byron’s chief goals to protect Ada from her father. It was not only Lord Byron's behavior that was cause for alarm, but there was fear that Ada had inherited some of the Byron family’s less desirable characteristics. In order to rein in any of these traits, her mother exerted an enormous amount of control over the child, and the young girl was trained to be respectfully obedient, with no room for questioning her mother's authority.  The young Ada was brought up by tutors and at an early age exhibited a fine mind. She was an excellent student, a talented artist and linguist, and had a unique imagination.  Her mother's main goal in giving Ada an exceptional education was to have her marry well. Ada did go on to marry well and have children, but there was a good deal more to her life than what her mother planned.  


When seventeen-year-old Ada and her mother lived in London she was presented to society in order to find a suitable husband, but one social evening would be momentous. Wednesday, June 5, 1833, mother and daughter stepped out to attend a party where Ada met Charles Babbage, the creator of the Difference Engine, which was an early calculation machine. For the forty-two-year-old widower Babbage, and the teenage Ada, it was kismet and the subject was mathematics. On their shared passionate interest in mathematics, mathematical theory and philosophy, and what it would mean for Ada, James Essinger says it all,  ". . . Ada Byron's insight into the future of calculation would erupt into a new and most radical kind of imagining, and would give her a vision of a kind of Jacquard loom that wove, not silk thread, but arithmetic and mathematics.  In other words a computer." The Jacquard Loom was a French mechanical loom that used punch cards, and Babbage's knowledge of this device prompted him to use the same method in his calculator. Ada would go on to work with Babbage on his Analytical Engine and write notes for it, and the notes have been called the first computer program. In her notes she envisaged Babbage's creation would lead to greater possibilities than being an advanced type of calculator. For over a decade they continued to work together, until her death after prolonged suffering from uterine cancer.


Among scholars there has been much debate as to the amount of credit is due Ada Lovelace, with a few writers accusing of her being a drug user/abuser like her father, and that she went mad as a result.  Quite often she took laudanum (a combination of opium and brandy) to relieve the ever-increasing pain from advanced uterine cancer. She never was addicted to drugs, but rather to learning prompted by her endless curiosity. James Essinger addresses the differing opinions and attributes some of it to outright misogyny.  However there is very little dispute about what she did envision for the future use of a device such as the Analytical Engine.  Also, the doubters certainly must wonder why Ada has been honored throughout the world with buildings named in her honor; the computer lanugage Ada, created by the U.S. Department of Defense, was named after her and the reference usage manual was given the number of her birth; the British Computer Society has awarded a medal in her honor; there is an Ada Lovelace Day; the Ada Initiative which encourages and supports women in technology and other endeavors; and three years ago, Google celebrated her 197th year. She was a remarkable woman who overcame the embarrassment and notoriety of her brilliant but flawed father; her controlling and manipulative mother; financial upsets; and endured great pain at the end of her very short life at thirty-seven.  And she was remarkable because her intelligence, inventiveness, and creativity persisted in spite of the obstacles.