The amazing true story of Ada Lovelace
Updated: Mar 7
I thought I would write something a bit different for this blog post. I have been looking into the life of Ada Lovelace and find her story utterly amazing and very interesting. I knew a little about her, such as she was the daughter of Lord Byron, she worked with Charles Babbage and she is considered to be the first programmer. But I didn’t really know much more until I listened to an inspiring talk by Dr Hannah Dee and started researching Ada Lovelace myself.
Ada led a truly fascinating life, broke barriers and overcame so many hurdles and yet for so long she was virtually forgotten. Let me enlighten you on what I have learnt. Are you sitting comfortably? Let us begin…we will start the story by finding out about her parents.
George Byron was the 6th Baron Byron and was known simply as Lord Byron. He was a politician and regarded as one of the greatest English romantic poets. He wrote “She walks in beauty” and “Don Juan” which he never got to finish before he died. Although his words may have had a beauty to them, his actions certainly did not.
As a talented poet, he studied at Trinity College, Cambridge. Having discovered he could not own a dog, as it was against the college rules, he kept a pet bear instead and insisted on putting it on a lead and taking it for a walk. He became widely known in fashionable circles, hosting and attending lavish parties and liked to shock guests by drinking wine from a human skull his gardener found. He lived a life with aristocratic excesses, which resulted in huge debts and many sex scandals including numerous love affairs with both men and women at a time when bisexuality was considered a crime. One of his lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb, summed him up as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know". Lady Caroline was so enthralled by Byron that she threatened to kill him and herself when he did not pay her enough attention.
Anne-Isabella Milbanke came from a wealthy family and was nicknamed Annabella. She was highly educated by former Cambridge University professors in classical literature, philosophy, science and mathematics. She was a strictly religious woman so it was surprising she agreed to marry Lord Byron, with his reputation. She had in fact turned down his first proposal but accepted the second. She confessed to her friend, much later in life, that she was “the very good girl determined to save the very bad man”.
They married in January 1815 but Byron’s family had great debts from previous generations and the ancestral home, Newstead Abbey, had fallen into disrepair. Byron and Annabella were soon in financial difficulty, partially because of Byron’s lavish lifestyle, but also because Byron did not want to take payment for his poems as he thought it was ungentlemanly and would prefer to live off his wife’s family’s wealth.
Annabella fell pregnant and Lord Byron began to drink heavily, angry at his mounting debts and his inability to sell off parts of his estate. He would often lose his temper and was increasingly violent towards his wife. He began an affair with another woman, a chorus girl named Susan Boyce who was appearing in a play he was directing. In the late stages of pregnancy, Annabella feared her husband might be going mad and asked Byron’s sister to visit to give her opinion but Byron beat her too and she was forced to flee believing him to be temporarily insane.
Lord Byron expected his child to be a "glorious boy" and was incredibly angry when Annabella gave birth to a girl on 10 December 1815, just 11 months after they got married. They named her Augusta Ada Byron and referred to by her middle name, Ada. Byron wrote to his wife commanding that she and their daughter leave his house and go to live with Annabella’s mother.
When Ada was just 5 weeks old, Annabella took Ada and moved into her mother’s home. Ada would never see her father again as he moved abroad shortly after the separation and died when Ada was just 8 years old.
As a single mother, Annabella found it difficult and Ada spent a great deal of time being looked after by her grandmother, Lady Judith Milbanke, who loved Ada dearly. In those days, a father would usually get custody of a child during a separation, but Byron had no intention of claiming his parental rights of Ada and happily let his wife have her. However, Annabella was aware Byron may change his mind so wrote copious letters to her daughter and family, knowing they may one day have to be used to prove her love for her child. She included notes to tell people to keep the letters safe in case she needed them later in court. However, in one letter to her mother Annabella referred to Ada as “it”, saying “I talk to it for your satisfaction, not my own” which shows the emotional detachment she actually felt toward her daughter. Lady Judith died when Ada was 7 years old leaving Ada to be brought up by nannies and governesses.
One thing her mother insisted upon was that Ada should get a high-quality education. However, girls from wealthy, aristocratic families could only be educated to a high level by private tutors. Annabella was so terrified that Ada may grow up to be poetic and catch her father’s madness she paid for tutors from all over the country to teach Ada strictly “non-imaginative” subjects and focus her mind away from creativity and poetry.
Annabella also made sure Ada learnt music and French as they were socially desirable for an aristocratic daughter. Her mother was very strict with Ada, demanding that the young girl work extremely hard and punishing her if she thought she had not worked hard enough. Annabella’s desire was that her daughter would become a highly disciplined, serious person, the very opposite of her father.
Ada and Annabella also arranged to visit factories where they could see steam driven machines at work and learn as much as they could about mechanical devices. Ada was interested to see the Jacquard loom where the punch cards were used to give instructions to the machine. Visiting dirty, noisy factories was a highly unusual activity for an aristocratic woman and her daughter to do.
Ada was often ill and at the age of eight she experienced headaches that blurred her vision. In June 1829 she was paralysed after a bout of measles and ordered to stay in bed for an entire year. Ada didn’t mind as it allowed her to read books and she could use the time to design new machines. By 1831, she was able to walk once again with crutches.
Augustus De Morgan was a mathematician and one of Ada’s tutors and he encouraged Ada to further study mathematics as she had impressed him with her natural ability. He said that if Ada had been a man she would have had the potential to become “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence”. However, Ada wrote to Augustus’ wife saying that that she had determined “too much mathematics” had caused her to have a breakdown. Later in life, Ada said that her study of mathematics had helped with the madness she feared she had inherited from her father. As an adult, Ada wrote to her husband “nothing but a very close and intense application to subjects of a scientific nature now seems at all to keep my imagination from running wild, or to stop the void which seems to be left in my mind”. It seems Ada was not only struck by physical illness but spent much of her life plagued with mental illness too.
Despite the illnesses, Ada developed her mathematical and technological skills and she decided she wanted to learn to fly.
She tested out possible materials she could use to make wings and investigated the styles of wings she could develop. She dissected birds to determine the right proportion between the wings and the body and where the steam engine would be located to provide power. She wrote a book, Flyology, which included illustrations and listed the equipment she would need; for example, a compass, to "cut across the country by the most direct road”. She wrote to her mother. “My dear mother, I have got a scheme, 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 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… I am going to begin my paper wings tomorrow and I feel almost convinced that with a year or so’s experience and practice I shall be able to bring the art of flying to very great perfection.”
Her design came 15 years before the aerial steam carriage was first patented in 1842 by William Henson and John Stringfellow. Ada was just 12 years old.
When Ada was a teenager Annabella had arranged for Ada to be constantly watched by close friends for any sign of madness she may have inherited from her father.
Daughters from reputable families were paid to have tea parties with her and pretend to be Ada’s friends but would report back to Annabella on any behaviour they thought was unladylike or any gossip they had heard about Ada. Ada dubbed these observers the "Furies" and complained they exaggerated and invented stories about her so that they would continue to be paid to spy on her.
Every aspect of Ada’s life was to be lived under their watchful eye. Any breach of the rules was seen as proof she had inherited her father’s madness and was to be punished immediately. Inevitably, Ada rebelled and became argumentative, turning each disagreement into a "French Revolution", as her mother described it. In her mid-teens, she suffered from what was diagnosed as a hysterical paralysis in her legs resulting in her being forced to take her lessons whilst lying on a hard wooden board.
As soon as she recovered she eloped with one of her tutors, but the tutor's relatives recognised her and contacted her mother. Ada was quickly caught and brought back home.
In those days it was frowned upon for men and women to be friends but Ada had lots of male friends and they enjoyed gambling on horses which shocked people and rumours quickly spread she was acting in an immoral way.
Meeting Charles Babbage
Annabella hired a female tutor, Mary Somerville, the Scottish astronomer and mathematician and it wasn’t long before Ada and Mary became great friends.
In 1833 Mary took Ada to a party to meet another mathematician, Charles Babbage. Ada was 17 and Babbage was 42. It was a friendship that would change Ada’s life.
Charles Babbage was a celebrity and well known at the time. He was famous for creating complicated machines that were designed to perform calculations. He was displaying his latest invention “The Difference Engine” and nobody at the party understood what it was doing, except for Ada. She instantly understood how it worked and was fascinated with the mechanics.
Ada and Babbage spent many hours after their first encounter talking about engines and maths and Babbage described to Ada his new idea called “The Analytical Engine”.
Babbage asked Ada to translate an article that had been written about his work on the analytical engine. The original article was written by an Italian engineer called Luigi Menabrea who would later become the Italian prime minister. Ada translated the article and also included her own notes resulting in the translation being three times as long as the original article. She wrote of how the machine could be programmed with a code to calculate Bernoulli numbers, which some consider to be the first computer program.
Ada is a young woman
When Ada was 19, she married William King, the Earl of Lovelace and she became Ada Lovelace. They went on to have three children together named Byron, Anne and Ralph by the time Ada was 24 years old.
Annabella had forbidden Ada from seeing any portraits of her father whilst she was growing up as she feared Ada would catch his madness. When Ada turned 20, Annabella decided Ada was old enough to look at his image and it was the first time Ada had seen her farther since she was a very young baby.
The development of the analytical engine
Babbage had designed his new machine to count and perform calculations. He had even built a prototype, which partially worked - but Ada had bigger ideas.
She was thinking in ways that nobody had ever done before and diagnosed this new machine “might act upon other things besides numbers…the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music.” She realised that numbers could be used to store pictures, text and sounds. Nobody had ever thought machines of being capable for doing such things, and Ada was describing a computer.
With her new ideas, Ada helped Babbage improve upon his design. The mechanism would still be driven by steam but her new ideas including the ability to save the numbers in a memory to be retrieved later. It is the very first design of a computer.
The end of Ada’s life
Ada’s gambling habit forced her to secretly pawn the Lovelace family’s diamonds. She once lost £3,200 in a single race, around £350,000 in today’s money, from betting on the wrong horse at the Epsom Derby. “Ada, encouraged by con men, would turn her prodigious talents toward gambling and programming the outcomes of horse races”. A book that was secretly passed between Ada and Babbage was thought to be an algorithm designed to predict horse-racing results. However, with Ada’s mounting debt, the algorithm clearly wasn’t working for her.
Sadly, Babbage and Ada never managed to build the new improved Analytical Engine as Ada had uterine cancer. She was in pain for several years and had been given opiates by her doctors to help her cope with it. She also drank far too much and it affected her moods. When she became too ill to leave the house, Charles Dickens, whom she had become friends with, came to visit her to read her his books to keep her company.
In August 1852, she called for her husband and confessed something to him. He leaves, never to return and nobody knows what she confessed.
Ada Lovelace died on the 27 November 1852, aged just 36 years old. She was the same age her father was when he died and she is buried next to her father, just as she requested.
Although her efforts were not recognised until over a century after her death, Ada saw something that Babbage had failed to see in his own machines. In Babbage's world his engines were used for number manipulation. What Ada saw was it could be used for so many different purposes and could store, manipulate and represent things other than numbers.
This had never been considered and if we are looking for the moment the modern computer was first thought of it was by Ada Lovelace in 1843. She was a mathematical genius and a prophet of the computer age.
When Ada was growing up, women were not expected to have any interest in science or engines and were not given the same opportunities in their education as the men. With encouragement from her mother, Ada was determined to not only learn all she could but also make discoveries for herself.
In recognition of not only Ada Lovelace but of all women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) Ada Lovelace day is an international celebration held every year on the second Tuesday of October.