Ada Lovelace has become the posterchild for women in science. Hers is the name and image that is most actively used today to recruit women into the field of STEM science.

  All true - and yet. Does a drive for recruitment by gender adequately explain the phenomenon that we now know as Ada Lovelace Day?

  ALD is celebrating its first decade on Tuesday 9 October. From primary schools in Australia to science conferences in Germany; from bookclubs in Argentina to STEM discussions in Madrid; from New Zealand to Alaska - back to a whole range of events across Great Britain and above all, in London (the city where Augusta Ada Byron was born in December 1815), Ada’s identification with digital technology has circled the world.

  Pleasingly appropriate for a girl who has known to her family as ‘Bird’ and to admirers as ‘Will o’the Whisp’. But is it right that homage is being paid across the world this week to a woman whose combination of mathematical skill with a soaring imagination enabled her to predict, from the 1840s, the coming of a time when technology would expand our horizons and reconfigure our lives?

  Of course it is. My concern is only that a new myth – Amazing Ada as wunderkind, the heroic enabler - has obscured the charismatic, flawed and poignantly vulnerable young woman whose precise but imaginative interpretation of an unbuilt machine eerily anticipated the Frankenstein monster of modern technology.

  Most of us know that Ada Lovelace  was a 27-year-old  Englishwoman who predicted, back in 1843, the creation of the modern computer. It’s easy to underestimate just what an extraordinary achievement that was. It is also easy to forget how much Ada owed to the team of devoted admirers and protectors who taught, encouraged and – necessarily with a mind that operated like quicksilver – restrained her. It’s with this in mind that I’d like to tell the story of just who this pioneer of computing was.


  Ada was only a baby when her mother, the former Annabella Milbanke, left Lord Byron’s London home after a single unhappy year of marriage to that most brilliant and dangerously enchanting of Romantic poets. Ada never saw her father again. Lord Byron died at Missolonghi in 1824, while raising financial support for the Greek War of Independence. Aged almost eight, Ada knew so little about him that, taken to see the ship on which her father’s remains had been brought home for an English burial, she thought he must have been the ship’s brave captain. (It was a reasonable supposition; numerous members of  Byron’s family had followed a naval career.)

  Transformed by his early death from a heartless villain into a national hero, Byron’s image dominated Ada’s childhood homes. (Her restless and unhappy mother never stopped moving house.) Lodged behind a curtain that screened him from public view stood a glorious image of the turbaned and cutlass-brandishing poet kitted out as an Albanian warrior.

   It was Ada’s proud grandmother, Lady Noel, who had first purchased Thomas Phillips’ swashbuckling portrait of Byron back in 1814. A year later, outraged by Byron’s callous treatment of her daughter, Judith Noel nailed her treasured portrait into a box and despatched it to the attic of her country home. And there it remained, safely out of sight, until her death in 1822.

  Annabella, who loved her devastatingly capricious husband until the day she died (she never ceased to regret her failed marriage and to blame Augusta Leigh for turning a beloved half-brother against his devoted wife), brought the painting back down from the attic in 1822. Restored to a position of honour, Lord Byron’s handsome face was nevertheless tactfully concealed behind a curtain of thick green velvet. (Etiquette dictated this decision; not even Annabella had the nerve to put on show a husband whom society believed had been capable during his marriage of committing – take a deep breath - incest, sodomy, adultery, violence and even attempted murder.)

   It says something about the curious lack of imagination displayed by Ada’s biographers that neither Ethel Mayne nor Doris Langley Moore - nor even their recent successors, Benjamin Woolley and Julia Markus  - considered that such an alluringly twitchable curtain might possibly have been thrust aside  - once, or twice, or even more - by a fatherless and exceptionally inquisitive little girl, growing up in a house from which her hardworking mother, rebuilding her life as an enlightened philanthropic reformer, was frequently absent. Not look? What would any of us have done. Of course she took a peek.

  Curiosity and inventiveness were remarked upon from the start as hallmarks of young Ada’s personality. Writing to Lord Byron about his daughter’s character, Annabella commented in 1823 upon Ada’s ‘mechanical ingenuity’. Five years later, the eleven-year-old was requesting books about the anatomy of birds. She wanted to study their wings in order to construct her own means of flight, before writing a book on the art of ‘Flyology’. On 7 April 1828, a startled Lady Byron learned of Ada’s latest idea. The book about flying had been abandoned. Instead, Ada planned to construct a horse with a steam-engine inside it:

so contrived as to move an immense pair of wings, fixed on the outside of the horse, in such a manner as to carry it up into the air while a person sits on its back.

  Once launched, young Ada’s flood of ideas became unstoppable. Early in 1829, William Frend (the elderly mathematician had been recruited by Annabella to calm her daughter’s excitable mind with a brisk course in theorems), was asked instead to provide a map of the stars. Within weeks, a bewitched Frend learned that Miss Byron intended to create a  Planetarium.

  Illness cut short Ada’s burgeoning ambitions. In May 1829, Dr Frend learned that his young protegee had been struck down by a mysterious form of paralysis. By 1830, she was chronically bedbound. Well enough by 1833 to execute a long-cherished plan for learning to ride a horse (powered only by its legs), Ada never fully recovered her health. It is one of the most poignant aspects of her brief and remarkable career that almost all of Lady Lovelace’s mathematical and scientific endeavours were carried out while suffering bouts of illness that caused her acute and  daily pain. Medically approved courses of laudanum and claret fuddled her wits, while failing to cure her.

  It was in 1833, shortly after dismaying her mother by arranging to elope with a susceptible shorthand tutor (The New York Times promptly condemned Lord Byron’s daughter, sight unseen, as ‘a very coarse and vulgar young woman’) that Ada was introduced to Charles Babbage.

  Babbage was the West Country born mathematical genius whose ambitious inventions would later become entwined with Ada’s destiny. Visiting his London home at Dorset Street, Ada inspected a fragment of the Difference Engine, a sophisticated calculating machine for which Babbage was trying to secure funding. Ada’s swift grasp of how the mechanism was intended to function astonished the spectators.

  While pleased by Ada’s interest in science and by her easy friendship with Babbage (a man old enough to be the young woman’s father), Lady Byron’s chief wish by this stage was to see her reckless, clever and impetuous daughter safely married. It was Woronzow Greig, the son of Ada’s new maths tutor, Mary Somerville, who found the solution. Greig had been at Byron’s former college, Trinity, Cambridge, with William King.

   Lord King worshipped Byron. Out in the Ionian islands, where he worked for his cousin, Lord Nugent, William had himself painted wearing a copy of Lord Byron’s Albanian costume. Back home, he renamed all the fields and woods of his Surrey estate after Byron’s poems. Later, designing a great hall for his new home at East Horsley, William ordered the Byron motto (Crede Byron; Believe in Byron) to be carved into the beam that spanned it.

  Ada, for such an ardent Byron acolyte, was the ultimate trophy. Introduced, the couple fell in love and were married from Lady Byron’s Ealing home in the summer of 1835. It tells us something about the family’s ongoing obsession with the past that the Kings’ first two children, named by a proud grandmother, were called Byron and Annabella. History was being deliberately repeated.

  In 1840, a frustrated Charles Babbage attended a conference in Turin at which he explained to an attentive audience his plans for a new and thrillingly ambitious contraption. This was the unbuilt Analytical Engine, a machine that could calculate upon its own results or - in Babbage’s own striking phrase  - ‘eat its own tail’. Babbage’s hope was that a paper written in English – one that he could show to the British government as part of an argument for their investment - might emerge from this conference. Unfortunately for his plans, Luigi Menabrea’s lucid explanation of the machine’s operations appeared only in French.

  Enter Ada. Retitled the Countess of Lovelace (this was thanks to an upgrade from her mother’s cousin, Prime Minister Melbourne), Ada had been studying mathematics – and struggling to master differential calculus - with a new tutor, Augustus de Morgan. Careerwise, she remained torn between science and music – Ada was proficient upon the harp and fancied her chances as an opera singer – until a friend, Charles Wheatstone, inventor both of the concertina and the electric telegraph, came to her with a suggestion. Why did she not translate Menabrea’s paper into English?

  It is for Ada’s work in 1843 that she is revered today. Having translated Menabrea’s pamphlet and gained Babbage’s enthusiastic approval, she secured permission to add some notes of her own. Of the 66 page document that was published over the modest signature ‘AAL’ that summer, 41 pages comprise Ada’s notes.

  ‘Who can foresee the consequences of such an invention?’ Menabrea had asked. Ada provided the answer by stating that the bounds of ‘mere arithmetic’ had now been overstepped. The unbuilt engine was no mere calculating machine:

  A new, a vast and a powerful language is developed for the future use of analysis, in which to yield its truths so that these may become of more speedy and practical application for the purposes of mankind than the means hitherto in our possession have rendered possible.

  Ada’s Note A, from which the above quotation comes, was the one in which she famously suggested both that the machine might compose music and that it could weave ‘algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves’. But it is Note G which gave rise to  Ada’s questionable status as the first computer programmer. Here, explaining how a system of numbers devised by Jakob Bernoulli back in 1713 could be computed by Babbage’s machine at an unprecedented speed, Ada painstakingly drew up a diagram to show how the computation would work. It isn’t a computer programme – binary numbers were not yet in use – but it certainly looks as if it is predicting their birth. It was, by any judgment, a remarkable achievement.

  Ada’s own restlessly brilliant mind moved on. While she never lost hope that she would somehow get Babbage’s impossibly large and complex machine funded and built, Lovelace was also researching what seems to have been an early form of spectroscopy – once again, this marks her out as a prophet of the future – during the last years of her life.

  A major reason that we will never know as much as we would like about Ada Lovelace’s scientific research is that her short life – like her father, she died aged only thirty-six – ended in scandal and disgrace. In 1851, Lord Lovelace admitted to a furious Lady Byron that her daughter had been losing considerable sums of money at the racetrack. In 1852, the outraged Annabella discovered that William Lovelace was actually Ada’s accomplice, one who was still providing his fragile wife with notes of endorsement. At the time of the marriage, back in 1835, William had promised Lady Byron that he would protect her daughter and safeguard her reputation. To Annabella, this breach of trust was the ultimate betrayal. She never forgave him.

   Pawning the Lovelace diamonds, keeping trysts with a secret (married) lover; fending off blackmailers: bit by bit, it all came out. Ada, during the last years of her life, had moved into a very murky world indeed. Fear of a public scandal reached the point at which it was judged safest to burn Ada’s papers in the north London house where she lay dying, agonizingly but courageously, of uterine cancer. (The echo from her father’s life is startling. Shortly after Byron’s death, a decision was taken to burn his unpublished memoirs.)

  Did Ada’s husband and mother do her a disservice by this private conflagraton? Certainly, they procured Lady Lovelace a scandal-free death. (Ada was discreetly buried, as she had privately requested, in the Byron vault, close to the father she had never known.)

   It’s impossible to know what was destroyed during those last fraught weeks of Ada’s life, but it is significant that no trace remains of the various scientific papers to which Lady Lovelace refers in her wonderfully lively correspondence. (The letters, mercifully, were only partially destroyed.) We know that she was interested in light refraction, in photography and in working with Faraday on electro-magnetism. Sadly, it’s impossible to know what she achieved – or even hoped to achieve. Nothing remains.

   It’s thanks to the vigorous and well-intended endeavours of her husband and mother that Ada Lovelace’s name almost vanished from view until Alan Turing famously claimed, eighty years after her death, that Lady Lovelace had predicted the modern computer. Since then, as we know, she has achieved the kind of fame that few can imagine. Most importantly, her name is helping to attract a growing number of women into the STEM sciences. She has become an inspiration for schoolgirls and for those students who see her as a pioneer.

  Reading about Lovelace’s extraordinary life, we should also draw inspiration and encouragement from the example of a young woman, living in Victorian times, who adamantly refused to be confined to her expected role. Ada’s ambition was limitless and she never lowered her horizons. Her commitment and her inflexible determination becomes even more admirable when we know about the physical pain that she endured. Her dedication to getting Babbage’s wonderful, impractical engine built lasted far beyond the writing of her famous notes in 1843. Her friendship with men like Michael Faraday and Charles Wheatstone and Babbage himself was that of a professional colleague. A colleague. This, for a female living in a society that offered no support to ambitious, independent women, was a truly remarkable achievement. And for that fierce, unswerving refusal to accept the role designated for a wife and mother as much as for her prophecies of an unforeseeable future, we should raise a toast to Ada Lovelace: a valiant, enchanting heroine in her own times and a glowing inspiration to our own.

   Added: Monday 08 October 2018

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