Ada Lovelace, Mathematician

Enchantress of Numbers by Jennifer Chiaverini is a very LONG book about a fascinating woman, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace.  I’m finally close to the conclusion, having experienced visceral reactions to Ada’s mother’s rigid parenting, her husband’s alignment with said mother Lady Byron, and the Victorian ideas about the weakness of the female body and brain.

I’ve been trying to remember where I encountered Ada before, because the main events of her life were vaguely familiar.  Perhaps it was actually a film? In any case, here’s a brief biography:

Ada Lovelace (born Augusta Ada Byron; December 10, 1815- November 27, 1852) was an English mathematician who has been called the first computer programmer for writing an algorithm, or a set of operating instructions, for the early computing machine built by Charles Babbage in 1821. As the daughter of the famed English Romantic poet Lord Byron, her life has been characterized as a constant inner-struggle between logic, emotion, poetry, and mathematics during periods of failing health, obsessive gambling, and bursts of boundless energy.

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My overall impression of Ada from Chiaverini’s book is of a supremely intelligent woman entrapped by Victorian social mores.  It didn’t take me long to start cursing her mother for all the cruel restrictions she imposed on her one daughter.  Of course, later on we learn of the very large skeleton in the Byron family’s closet that may explain some of the mother’s behavior. 

Ada Lovelace’s childhood was far different from that of most aristocratic young women in the mid-1800s. Determined that her daughter not be influenced by her literary rockstar father’s promiscuous lifestyle and moody temperament, Lady Byron forbad Ada from reading poetry, allowing her instead to be tutored strictly in mathematics and science. Believing it would help her develop the self-control needed for deep analytic thought, Lady Byron would force young Ada to lie still for hours at a time.

For a woman of her time, though, Ada had more freedom than many others, being from a wealthy, aristocratic family and the daughter of the era’s most famous poet.  She was able to pursue her passion for mathematics and did produce an original invention.

In 1842, Babbage asked Lovelace to translate from French into English a scholarly article on his calculating machine written by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea. Ada not only translated the article, but she also supplemented it with an elaborate analytical section she simply titled “Notes,” comprised of Note A to Note G. Lovelace’s seven notes, now revered as a milestone in the history of computers, contained what many consider to have been the first computer program—a structured set of instructions to be carried out by a machine. In her Note G, Lovelace describes an algorithm that would instruct Babbage’s Analytical Engine to accurately compute Bernoulli numbers. Today it is considered to have been the first algorithm specifically created to be implemented on a computer, and the reason Lovelace is often called the first computer programmer. Since Babbage never completed his Analytical Engine, Lovelace’s program was never tested. However, her process for having a machine repeat a series of instructions, called “looping,” remains a staple of computer programming today.

I wouldn’t say Enchantress of Numbers was a fabulous read, but I did finish the book.  It is satisfying that Lovelace’s contribution to science is recognized.

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