The Original InnovateHer – Ada Lovelace

Written by: on October 8, 2018
Tags: Guest Blogger, Inspiration, Role Model, Women in Tech

Despite being a daughter of an infamous poet and a disillusioned mother, and becoming a young woman in the Victorian era, the story of the brilliant mind, Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852) teaches us that we can always make lemonade from whatever ingredient life has to offers.

Ada Lovelace in evening dress with mantilla, possibly by A E Chalon (1780-1860), [c1840]
Ada Lovelace in evening dress with mantilla, possibly by A E Chalon (1780-1860), [c1840]

The hand that rocked the cradle

When Lord Byron himself is your father, you aren’t really given a chance to choose your own career path, especially when your mother decides to drive you as far away as possible from poetry. The strict and unhappy parent, Anne Isabella Milbanke was not only well educated, she was especially fascinated in mathematics and astronomy. She also dedicated herself to helping the poor via education. After her marriage to Lord Byron ended when Ada was only two months old, Lady Byron decided to shield her daughter from the scandalous father’s bad influence.

This is why Augusta Ada Gordon got an exceptional education from the age of 4, focusing on science, logic and mathematics. Furthermore the little girl became fascinated with machines – we should remember this was the age of industrial revolution. At the age of 12, the young self-made engineer designed a steam powered flying machine in the shape of a winged horse, Pegasus.

Enviable female mentor

We have to bear in mind that this all happened in the 19th century, when girls education focused on them becoming the Head of the Home, as back then they were deemed the weaker and inferior sex. In the 1830s it wasn’t uncommon for the two sexes to led very separate lives, only coming together at breakfast and again at dinner.

Charles Babbage by Samuel Laurence, oil on canvas, 1845
Charles Babbage by Samuel Laurence, oil on canvas, 1845

In spite of social expectations in 1833 her tutor, Mary Sommerville, introduced Lovelace to the inventor and mathematician Charles Babbage, who was to become ‘the father of the computer’. This meeting might be seen as being written in the stars, but rather it was forged by a great teacher, who herself was recognised as a scientific writer and a polymath. With such acquaintances, Lovelace’s upbringing and her later social life, where she sipped tea in the company of Charles Darwin, Alexander von Humbolt and other scientific luminaries, it’s no surprise that she became ‘the mother of computer programming’ we know and admire.

Friendship matters

The young mathematician and the professor, 24 years her senior, formed a very unlikely friendship for life. Babbage was definitely bewitched by Ada’s ability, as we can learn it from a description of her in a letter to Michael Faraday, “that Enchantress who has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects could have exerted over it.”

This letter from Lovelace to Babbage proposes an example of a calculation that “may be worked out by the engine without having been worked out by human head and hands first”.
This letter from Lovelace to Babbage proposes an example of a calculation that “may be worked out by the engine without having been worked out by human head and hands first”.

Though Lovelace was thoroughly interested in Babbage’s clockwork calculating machine from the start, her time came in 1842 when she agreed to translate an Italian paper on the, then theoretical, “Analytical Engine”. (Although Charles Babbage had never finished his machine, had he done so, it would have worked perfectly.) Being a skilled mathematician and understanding her friend’s work so well, she was also asked to annotate the paper. The keen translator happily obeyed and the final paper was three times longer than the original document, containing the fundamentals of computer programming.

Her tragically early death at the age of 36 raises the question: How far could this genius have gone, if she had been given some more time on Earth?

She is our Shero too

In spite of the publication of her work in 1843, she was yet to recognised for almost a century. Although her early coding inspired Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computers in the 1940s, she got her well deserved fame only in 1953, when it was republished in Bertram V. Bowden’s  “Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines”. Deservedly, in 1980 the early programming language developed for military defence purposes in the USA was named after her.

In the meantime Ada Lovelace became the role-model for women working in the tech field. Since 2009 the second Tuesday in October – today! – has been celebrated as Ada Lovelace Day, on which the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are honoured. Let’s not forget that in the summer of 2018 Lovelace was voted the fourth most influential woman in history by the readers of BBC History magazine. She precededpioneering scientist Marie Curie, civil rights heroine Rosa Parks and suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.

'The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage' by Sydney Padua
‘The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage’ by Sydney Padua

Her influence has not halted at science, she became the leading lady of a Steampunk graphic novel as well. ‘The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer’ was published in 2015. With the help of graphic artist Sydney Padua, the two friends fulfil their dream in a parallel Victorian universe. There, not only was the Analytical Engine finished successfully, but they also used it to fight crime. The book received appreciation, with ‘The Guardian review stating: “In short, this is an utter joy, but also, to hazard a semi-educated opinion, mathematically sound.” Concluding: “This is a book to reread, not just read.”

By Andrea Orisek
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