|Fig 1. Charles Babbage. Engraving from 1871. Via the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Source|
It is undeniable that computer science and technology play an important part in medical investigation and research, and universally in the transmission of information. Everyone remembers Charles Babbage, (1791-1871) (Fig 1) inventor of the computer and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, but an almost equally important figure has been largely overlooked. This was a titled lady with an unusually distinguished literary and aristocratic heritage, who like her famous father was a brilliant if eccentric romantic.
The lady was Ada Byron, who became Countess Lovelace. (Fig 2) Ada was the issue of the disastrous marriage of Lord Gordon George Byron (1788–1824) to the heiress Annabella Milbanke, Lady Byron.1 The mercurial Lord Byron lived an infamous, flamboyant life; he was sensitive, arrogant, prone to debauchery, and had countless affairs not only with married women but also with his half-sister Augusta. Lady Caroline Lamb, one of his paramours, famously described him as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Yet his poetry and satirical prose have been universally acclaimed; and he was bold, heroic, and active in rectifying social and national injustice. The breakdown of his marriage led to his abandoning Ada when she was only a few weeks old. Her mother Annabella, the puritanical, autocratic Lady Byron,2 was determined that Ada would not follow her father’s example. Annabella was well versed in mathematics; Lord Byron called her the “Princess of Parallelograms.” Rather than art and literature, she insisted on Ada’s education in mathematics and science, in which she worked tirelessly and became highly proficient at a precocious age. One of her later teachers was Augustus De Morgan, an eminent mathematician at the forefront of the emerging field of symbolic logic. He remarked that had Ada been a man, she would have become “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence.” Mary Somerville, the Scottish astronomer and mathematician, was another of Ada’s tutors who, recognizing her talent introduced her to Babbage in 1833 when she was just seventeen.
Ada immediately saw the potential of Charles Babbage’s huge, new Difference Engine, the forerunner of all subsequent computer systems. Using punch cards it could perform swiftly a large range of mathematical operations. He was awarded the gold medal of the Astronomical Society. Almost 200 years later Babbage is remembered3 and justly praised, but the name of Ada Lovelace has been forgotten.
She witnessed a demonstration of his first calculating Difference Engine in 1833, which had cost the British government £17,500 or the equivalent of £1.7 million pounds today. More than any other member of the audience, Ada appreciated its power to hasten mathematical calculation and its possible use for other symbols.4 She mixed with Babbage and his influential friends, who included Michael Farady, I. K. Brunel, John Herschel, and Francis Baily. In November 1834 Babbage shared with her his general idea for a new calculating engine, The Analytical Engine, a general-purpose computing machine that contained an arithmetical unit, conditional branching and loops, and integrated memory. Potentially it could implement any kind of algorithm to be “programmable.”
|Fig 2. Ada Countess of Lovelace. Source.|
Lovelace and Babbage’s friendship flourished. She soon mastered the functions of his Analytical Engine design; more than Babbage she realized its wider potential, reporting in 1841:
Mathematical Science shows us what is. It is the language of unseen relations between things. But to use & apply that language we must be able fully to appreciate, to feel, to seize, the unseen, the unconscious. Imagination too shows us what is, the is that is beyond the senses.
Although it was never built, she began to work on the design with his approval, but her role was always a subsidiary one since Victorian women were held to be too weak both physically and intellectually to pursue academic work. She was not alone in having her inventiveness and career thwarted by prejudices against professional women of this era.
In 1835 Ada married William King, eighth Baron King of Ockham (1805–1893), who became Earl of Lovelace in 1838. They had two sons, Byron Noel and Ralph Gordon, and a daughter Anne.
But Ada was not to be denied in her enthusiasm and in her vision of the possible applications of the new Analytical Engine. In 1843 she translated a series of notes by the Italian L. F. Menabrea based on a lecture given by Babbage. Babbage was delighted with her translation and her added notes and asked her to expand it. In September 1843 she published this work in Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs (vol. 3) as Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage, Esq. by L.F. Menabrea, of Turin, Officer of the Military Engineers: With Copious Notes by the Translator. It was three times the original paper’s length. It contained what is now considered the first computer program, which consisted of a coded algorithm for the calculation of Bernoulli numbers. It included many of her own ideas, not least the creative potential for the Analytical Engine to devise music and other symbols beyond Babbage’s mathematical ones:
The engine may be described as being the material expression of any indefinite function of any degree of generality and complexity . . .
She thus became the first computer programmer.
She quickly foresaw its possible application to diverse symbols, automata, and problems other than those of numerical calculations. She wrote:
Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.
In August 1843, she wrote a 2,000-word letter to Babbage offering him her help to obtain funds to develop the Analytical Engine. Babbage rejected her attempts. He deserves full credit for his invention, but it was Lovelace who had the imagination and passion to attempt the further development of computers in fields far beyond Babbage’s own ideas. Her notes and letters to him make this clear. It was governmental financial constraints that arrested its completion. It could not devise new concepts but could, Lovelace stated, do whatever we know how to order it to perform.
|Fig 3. Blue Plaque for Ada Countess of Lovelace|
Frustrated and seeking money to develop the machine, she recklessly took to gambling on horses on a monumental scale, incurring huge debts. Her efforts were further hampered when she became ill and in 1851 had a severe hemorrhage. In severe pain and requiring opiates, she took to her bed and was tended by her somewhat domineering mother. She died from cancer of the uterus, at 6 Great Cumberland Place, London, on 27 November 1852, aged only thirty-six—the same age that her father Lord Byron had died at Missolonghi in Greece.
In her youth Ada Lovelace suffered from nervous breakdowns, but they did not stop her eloping briefly with her tutor. She had an assertive, feisty, rebellious, but warm personality. In addition to her mathematical knowledge, her imaginative faculties and her adventurous, reckless behavior were surely inherited from her similarly brilliant but infamous father.
Ada chose to be buried next to the father she never knew. The grave lies in St. Mary Magdalene parish church in Hucknall near Lord Byron’s ancestral home at Newstead Abbey. His lines in his melancholic, semi-autobiographical poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage reveal his early emotional connection and his hopes for Ada, which were not unjustified:
Is thy face like thy mother’s, my fair child!
ADA! sole daughter of my house and my heart?
When last I saw thy young blue eyes they smiled,
And then we parted—not as now we part, But with a hope.
Her foresight was as remarkable as her long period of neglect, so that it was a hundred years later that the genius Alan Turing FRS recognized the significance of her work. Turing, who deciphered the German Enigma code of military intelligence (thus saving the battle of the Atlantic in World War II), rediscovered her original work and ideas in the Notes of Ada Lovelace in her Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage: Translation and Notes by Ada Lovelace, made a century earlier. He coined the term “Lady Lovelace’s Objection”a in his 1950 paper.5 But until this time Ada was still largely a footnote.
A specific computer language “ADA” was created in May 1979 for the U.S. Department of Defense and was named in her memory. A Blue Plaque (Fig 3) marks her home at 12 (formerly 10) St. James’s Square, London, as a “pioneer of the computer.”
- Lovelace had stated: “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform.”
- Miranda Seymour. In Byron’s Wake. Simon & Schuster 2018.
- Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Lady Byron Vindicated, 1870.
- Collier B. The Little Engines that Could’ve: The Calculating Machines of Charles Babbage. PhD. thesis. Harvard University Cambridge, Massachusetts August, 1970. https://www.scss.tcd.ie/SCSSTreasuresCatalog/miscellany/TCD-SCSS-X.20121208.002/TheLittleEnginesThatCouldve-TheCalculatingMachinesOfCharlesBabbage.pdf
- Suw Charman-Anderson (Editor). A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention. Finding Ada, 2nd edition 2015. https://findingada.com/shop/a-passion-for-science-stories-of-discovery-and-invention/ada-lovelace-victorian-computing-visionary/
- Turing A. M. Computing Machinery And Intelligence. Mind A Quarterly Review Of Psychology And Philosophy 1950;59(236):433-459.
JMS PEARCE, MD, FRCP, is a retired neurologist and author with a particular interest in the history of science and medicine.