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The Amazing Adding Subtracting Composing Creating Do-Everything Machine

Ada Lovelace Envisions Modern Computing

By Paulette W. Campbell | HUMANITIES, January/February 2003 | Volume 24, Number 1

Ada Lovelace was a scientist and a countess. Her passion for mathematics was unfettered by the popular view that women had frail brains that could be injured by serious work in mathematics. Her interests ranged from machinery to anatomy, and in 1843 she wrote a visionary text explaining the process now known as computer programming.

She came of age during a period of scientific optimism, when anything was believed possible. Ada was only twelve years old when she wrote of her plans to build an airplane: I’ve got a scheme about a steam engine. It is to make a thing in the form of a horse with a steam engine in the inside so contrived as to move an immense pair of wings fixed to the outside of the horse in such a manner as to carry it up into the air when a person sits on its back. I think of writing a book of flyology illustrated with plates if I ever invent a method of flying.

Lovelace’s life and contributions to the field of computing are profiled in a new hour-long documentary, To Dream Tomorrow. Filmmakers John Fuegi and Jo Francis of Flare Productions, Inc. produced the film as part of a series called “Women of Power,” supported by the Maryland Humanities Council and the NEH-funded Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.

Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron in December 1815 to the Romantic poet Lord George Gordon Byron. Her mother, Anne Isabella Milbanke, was a mathematician whom Lord Byron once referred to as “the princess of parallelograms.” Lovelace’s parents separated five weeks after she was born.

Ada received her education at home, according to the societal norms for a girl of her social class. Ada’s mother designed her curriculum and encouraged her not only in what were then considered appropriate subjects for girls--music and poetry--but also in subjects usually reserved for boys: mathematics, science, and geography.

“Ada must have benefited enormously from her mother’s intellect,” says the Earl of Lytton, Lovelace’s great-great grandson. When Ada was thirteen, she became ill--possibly with the measles--and was temporarily paralyzed. She was confined to her bed for a year and a half.

She did not seem to mind the isolation of an invalid, says historian David Herbert. “She carried on with her studies and appears in the main to have welcomed the chance to study alone.”

At seventeen, she visited the home of the famous mathematician Charles Babbage. Babbage had built a model of a locomotive-sized calculator called the Difference Engine, a machine that could be programmed to perform mathematical functions and print the results. He had a model of his engine as well as other mechanical devices on display in his home in London.

“Ada was one of the only people who really understood, perhaps in a kind of intuitive way, the potential of what she was seeing that day when she and many other people saw Babbage’s Difference Engine on display,” says Sadie Plant, former director of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at University of Warwick in England. “Maybe it’s the fact that she had been to some extent as a young woman excluded from many of the more orthodox channels of education. Maybe it was that that gave her a more open mind and allowed her to really see where this thing could go.”

Shortly after seeing Babbage’s machine, she was introduced to Mary Fairfax Somerville of Scotland, the first woman scientist to be published by the Royal Society. In Somerville, Lovelace found a mentor and a compatible soul, whose friendship would last through decades of correspondence. She once wrote, My Dear Mrs. Somerville, I’m afraid that when a machine, or a lecture, or anything of the kind, comes in my way, I have no regard for time, space, or any ordinary obstacles. I think you must be fond enough of those things, to sympathize with my eagerness about them.

The expectations of the Industrial Revolution stimulated Ada’s interest in machines. “It was a period of almost tangible excitement,” says scholar Miranda Seymour. “It’s easier nowadays to imagine just the thrill and the sense that really anything was possible.” Ada and her mother went on a tour of factories in northern England. There, they were given a demonstration of the Jacquard Loom, a technological marvel in which intricate woven patterns were controlled by the patterns of holes in a set of punched cards strung together to create patterns and pictures.

Ada remarked, then, “this machinery reminds me of Babbage and his gem of all mechanism.” The seed was planted for a new machine with more capabilities. Shortly after her return from the factories, in November 1834, Lovelace, Somerville, and Babbage had dinner and discussed in detail the idea to take his original invention a step beyond--to develop an Analytical Engine operated by punch cards.

“One of the extraordinary features of the Analytical Engine is the way the machine is divided up,” explains Doron Swade, assistant director at the London Science Museum and author of The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer. “Babbage separated the store--that is the place where information is kept--from the mill, the place where the information processed. Now, we would call the store the memory, and the mill perhaps the central processor.”

“What Ada Lovelace saw in that process, in that crucial move to the Analytical Engine, was the possibility of a universal machine; a machine which in principle really could do anything,” explains the film. Babbage and Lovelace soon began a collaboration on the world’s first computer. While Babbage continued to fine-tune the design of his two machines, Lovelace married Lord William King in 1835 and had three children: Byron, in 1836; Annabella, in 1837; and Ralph, in 1839. Lovelace’s husband became the Earl of Lovelace in 1838 and Ada became a countess. Neither matrimony nor motherhood dampened her enthusiasm for math.

Lovelace’s intellectual development had to continue outside academic circles that were denied to her. She established her own equivalent of a university by correspondence and meetings with leading scientists, intellectuals, and inventors including Sir David Brewster, the inventor of the kaleidoscope; Charles Wheatstone, an inventor of an early telegraph; Michael Faraday, who discovered the electromagnetic field; and author Charles Dickens.

In a letter written to Babbage soon after her marriage, Lovelace wrote that she was studying finite differences. And in this I have more particular interests. Because I know it bears directly on some of your business. I think much of the possible I say probable future connection between us. I think great good may be the result to both of us.

In the fall of 1841, Babbage presented his design for the Analytical Engine at a seminar in Turin, Italy. The following year, Luigi Federico Menabrea, an Italian mathematician, wrote a summary of the presentation and published an article in French. While Lovelace was translating Menabrea’s article into English, Babbage suggested that she add her own notes. These observations, three times the length of the original article, outlined the fundamental concepts of computer programming. Published in the prestigious journal Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs under the acronym A.A.L. (for Augusta Ada Lovelace), the notes were to become her lasting contribution to science.

She described the superiority of the Analytical Engine over the Difference Engine in its ability to perform complex functions. “The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard Loom weaves flowers and leaves.” She described the two different types of cards, those belonging to the mill, where the calculations were done, and those in the storehouse where they were kept, and speculated that such a machine might be used to compose complex music, produce graphics, and would be for both practical and scientific use.

“Ada Lovelace is effectively developing the first computer programs, the first software, for the hardware of a machine that, of course, did not exist,” says Plant. “She is writing the program for a virtual machine, for a future machine.”

Lovelace’s notes nearly went unpublished. Babbage wanted her to include a section criticizing the government for not funding his Analytical Engine. She refused, and Babbage threatened to stop publication of her work. The notes were ultimately published, but the working relationship between Lovelace and Babbage had been irretrievably damaged. When she offered to help raise money to complete the Analytical Engine he refused her assistance. “She came to the conclusion that he couldn’t accept the concept of working cooperatively,” says Francis. “He really insisted on going it alone, and of course his machine never got built in his lifetime.”

Lovelace saw something that Babbage failed to see, Swade says. In Babbage’s view, his machines were limited to numerical data. They could do algebra. They could manipulate plus and minus signs. But they only manipulated numbers as a measure of quantity. “She saw that numbers could represent entities other than quantity,” says Swade. “So, once you had a machine for manipulating numbers, if those numbers represented other things--letters, musical notes--then the machines could manipulate symbols of which numbers were one instance.”

Lovelace’s interest, meanwhile, turned to medical science. At the time, Ada saw how electricity was being used to work new mechanisms. “She was making connections between the body and machines and the brain. She thought it might be possible to advance medical science by explaining the workings of the body in mathematical terms,” says Fuegi.

I have my hopes, and very distinct ones too, of one day getting cerebral phenomena such that I can put them into mathematical equations--in short, a law or laws for the mutual actions of the molecules of brain. I hope to bequeath to the generations a calculus of the nervous system.

Lovelace would not see any of her ideas come to fruition. She died in 1852 at the age of thirty-six. Some years before her death she wrote: Probably I shall never do all I aim at. But very likely, I may succeed in finding the key which may open the avenue for my successors to accomplish what I may leave undone and undeveloped.

It’s been said that Lovelace’s work had little influence on the field of computer science because everything that she had written was eventually rediscovered in the 1940s and 1950s. But in making the film, Fuegi and Francis found evidence that many of those who developed computing in the twentieth century did in fact know of Lovelace’s work. For example, Alan Turing, who developed a method to break the Enigma Code of the Germans in World War II, used Ada’s notes in his postwar work on computing and artificial intelligence. And, according to Francis, the references that scholars make to Babbage’s Analytical Engine are commonly intermixed with Ada’s article on the subject.

“The radical breakthrough in terms of intellectual history--what places Lovelace ahead of forerunners of the intellectual caliber of Pascal and Leibniz, and her contemporary Babbage,” says Fuegi, “is that she alone foresaw not just number crunching but real modern computing.”

About the Author

Paulette W. Campbell is a writer in Burtonsville, Maryland.

Funding Information

The Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities has received $410,000 to develop innovative humanities programs, including the “Women of Power” film series. The series has so far produced The War Within: A Portrait of Virginia Woolf; Red Ruth: That Deadly Longing, on Ruth Berlau, and In the Symphony of the World: a Portrait of Hildegard of Bingen.