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Summary Article: Lovelace, (Augusta) Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852)
from The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Place: England

Subject: biography, physics

English mathematician and writer who created the first program for Charles Babbage's analytical engine - she is known as the first computer programmer.

Ada, Lady Byron, was born on 10 December 1815 in Piccadilly Terrace, Middlesex (now in London), the daughter of a brief marriage between the Romantic poet Lord Byron and Anne Isabel Millbanke. She never met her father because her parents separated when she was a month old and he left England shortly afterwards. Her mother was determined that Ada should not grow up a poet and encouraged her by engaging tutors in mathematics and music to counteract any poetic tendencies. Ada taught herself geometry and was educated by private tutors including Augustus De Morgan, London University's first professor of mathematics, who taught her advanced mathematics. She was also instructed in astronomy and mathematics by William Frend. At the age of 13 she produced a design for a flying machine.

Ada and her mother moved in elite circles, in which they were likely to meet the ‘gentlemen scientists’ of the day. In 1833, at the age of 17, Ada met and became a lifelong friend of Charles Babbage, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge and inventor of the difference engine. They corresponded on mathematics, logic, and life. Babbage was planning a new kind of calculating machine, the analytical engine, and in 1842 Ada produced an annotated translation of the Italian mathematician Menabrae's Notions sur la machine analytique de Charles Babbage. In her annotations she described how the analytical engine could be programmed to compute Bernoulli numbers, showing her understanding of the programmed computer. Her notes also anticipated further developments, including the possibility of computer-generated music. This article was the source of her relatively recent reputation as the first computer programmer. She also had a good grasp of symbolic logic, which was thought to produce dangerous tensions in the mind of a woman. She later used her mathematical skills to devise a secret gambling system.

In 1835 she had married William King, eighth Baron King and ten years her senior, becoming Countess of Lovelace in 1838 when he became earl. They had three children - their daughter, Anne Blunt, becoming a famous traveller. Dogged by ill-health throughout her life, the countess died of cancer on 27 November 1852 at the age of 36, and was buried beside her father. The high-level computer-programming language Ada was named in her honour in 1977 by the US Department of Defense.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

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