Biography of Ada Lovelace, First Computer Programmer

A gallery employee looks at a painting of Ada Lovelace, mathematician and daughter of Lord Byron.
Painting of Ada Lovelace, mathematician and daughter of Lord Byron.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Ada Lovelace (born Augusta Ada Byron; December 10, 1815- November 27, 1852) was an English mathematician who has been called the first computer programmer for writing an algorithm, or a set of operating instructions, for the early computing machine built by Charles Babbage in 1821. As the daughter of the famed English Romantic poet Lord Byron, her life has been characterized as a constant inner-struggle between logic, emotion, poetry, and mathematics during periods of failing health, obsessive gambling, and bursts of boundless energy.

Fast Facts: Ada Lovelace

  • Known For: Often considered the first computer programmer
  • Also Known As: The Countess of Lovelace
  • Born: December 10, 1815 in London, England
  • Parents: Lord Byron, Lady Byron
  • Died: November 27, 1852 in London, England
  • Education: Private tutors and self-educated
  • Awards and Honors: Computer programming language Ada named for her
  • Spouse: William, 8th Baron of King
  • Children: Byron, Annabella, and Ralph Gordon
  • Notable Quote: “The more I study, the more insatiable do I feel my genius for it to be.”

Early Life and Education

Ada Byron (Ada Lovelace), aged seven, by Alfred d'Orsay, 1822.
Ada Byron (Ada Lovelace), aged seven, by Alfred d'Orsay, 1822. Somerville College, Oxford/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Ada Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, in London, England on December 10, 1815. Four months later, her father, the flamboyant poet Lord Byron, left England forever. Raised by her mother, Lady Anne Byron, Ada never knew her famous father, who died when she was 8 years old.

Ada Lovelace’s childhood was far different from that of most aristocratic young women in the mid-1800s. Determined that her daughter not be influenced by her literary rockstar father’s promiscuous lifestyle and moody temperament, Lady Byron forbad Ada from reading poetry, allowing her instead to be tutored strictly in mathematics and science. Believing it would help her develop the self-control needed for deep analytic thought, Lady Byron would force young Ada to lie still for hours at a time.

Prone to ill health throughout her childhood, Lovelace suffered from vision-obscuring migraine headaches at age eight and was left partially paralyzed by a case of measles in 1829. After over a year of continuous bed rest, which may have slowed her recovery, she was able to walk with crutches. Even during her periods of illness, she continued to expand her skills in mathematics, while developing a keen interest in new technologies, including the possibility of human flight.

At age 12, Ada decided she wanted to fly and began pouring her knowledge and imagination into the effort. In February 1828, after studying the anatomy and flight techniques of birds, she built a set of wings made of wires covered with paper and feathers. In a book she titled “Flyology,” Lovelace explained and illustrated her findings, concluding with a design for a steam-driven mechanical flying horse. Her studies of flight would one day lead Charles Babbage to affectionately refer to her as “Lady Fairy.”

Lovelace’s skills in mathematics emerged at age 17, when her tutor, noted mathematician and logician Augustus De Morgan, prophetically wrote to Lady Byron that her daughter’s mastery of mathematics could result in her becoming “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence.” Endowed with poetic father’s active imagination, Ada often described her area of study as “poetical science,” saying that she considered metaphysics to be as important as mathematics in exploring “the unseen worlds around us.”

First Computer Programmer

In June 1833 Lovelace’s tutor, Mary Somerville, introduced her to British mathematician, philosopher, and inventor Charles Babbage, now widely considered to have been the “father of the computer.” As the two mathematicians began to develop what would become a lifelong friendship, Lovelace became fascinated with Babbage’s groundbreaking work on his mechanical calculating device, he called the Analytical Engine.

A drawing of 17-year-old Ada Byron (Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace) daughter of Lord Byron.
A drawing of 17-year-old Ada Byron (Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace) daughter of Lord Byron. Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In 1842, Babbage asked Lovelace to translate from French into English a scholarly article on his calculating machine written by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea. Ada not only translated the article, but she also supplemented it with an elaborate analytical section she simply titled “Notes,” comprised of Note A to Note G. Lovelace’s seven notes, now revered as a milestone in the history of computers, contained what many consider to have been the first computer program—a structured set of instructions to be carried out by a machine. In her Note G, Lovelace describes an algorithm that would instruct Babbage’s Analytical Engine to accurately compute Bernoulli numbers. Today it is considered to have been the first algorithm specifically created to be implemented on a computer, and the reason Lovelace is often called the first computer programmer. Since Babbage never completed his Analytical Engine, Lovelace’s program was never tested. However, her process for having a machine repeat a series of instructions, called “looping,” remains a staple of computer programming today.

Ada Lovelace's diagram from "Note G", the first published computer algorithm.
Ada Lovelace's diagram from "Note G", the first published computer algorithm. Ada Lovelace/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Her Note G also expressed Lovelace’s rejection of the concept of artificial intelligence or the idea that robotic machines can be made capable of performing tasks that typically require human intelligence. “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything,” she wrote. “It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis, but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths.” Lovelace’s dismissal of artificial intelligence long remained the subject of debate. For example, iconic computer genius Alan Turing specifically refuted her observations in his 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” In 2018, a rare first edition of Lovelace’s notes sold at auction for 95,000 pounds ($125,000) in the United Kingdom.

Lovelace was held in high regard by her peers. In an 1843 letter to Michael Faraday, Babbage referred to her as “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 (in our own country at least) could have exerted over it.”

Personal Life

Ada Lovelace’s socialite-like personal life was in sharp contrast to her isolated childhood and dedication to the study of mathematics and science. Along with Charles Babbage, her close friends included kaleidoscope creator Sir David Brewster, electric motor inventor Michael Faraday, and popular novelist Charles Dickens. In 1832, at age 17, Ada became a regular celebrity at the Court of King William IV, where she was known as “a popular belle of the season” and celebrated for her “brilliant mind.”

In July 1835, Lovelace married William, 8th Baron King, becoming Lady King. Between 1836 and 1839, the couple had three children: Byron, Annabella, and Ralph Gordon. In 1838, Ada became Countess of Lovelace when William IV made her husband the Earl of Lovelace. Typical of members of the English aristocracy of the day, the family lived seasonally in three homes, including mansions located in Surry and London, and on a sizeable estate on Scotland’s Loch Torridon.

During the late 1840s, even as her acclaim as an accomplished mathematician grew, Lovelace became the subject of scandals arising from rumors of her involvement in extra-marital romantic affairs and an uncontrollable secret gambling habit. By 1851, she had reportedly lost the modern equivalent of nearly $400,000.00 betting on horse racing. Hoping to recoup her losses, Ada created a complex mathematical formula for winning at the track and convinced a syndicate of her male friends, including Charles Babbage, to bankroll her efforts to use it. However, as with all such “sure-fire” gambling systems, Ada’s was doomed to failure. Her mounting losses from making big bets on slow horses left her deeply in debt to the syndicate and forced her to reveal her gambling habit to her husband.

Illness and Death

In late 1851, Lovelace developed uterine cancer, which her physicians treated mainly by the already almost obsolete technique of bloodletting. During her year-long illness, Ada’s daughter Annabella prevented almost all of her mother’s friends and associates from seeing her. However, in August 1852, Ada persuaded Annabella to allow her long-time friend Charles Dickens to visit. At the now bed-ridden Ada’s request, Dickens read her a tender passage from his popular 1848 novel “Dombey and Son” describing the death of 6-year-old Paul Dombey.

Apparently aware that she would not survive, Ada, who had once declared, “Religion to me is science, and science is religion,” was persuaded by her mother to embraced religion, seek forgiveness for her past questionable actions, and name Annabella as the executor of her sizable estate. Ada Lovelace died at the age of 36 on November 27, 1852, in London, England. At her request, she was buried next to her father, Lord Byron, at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottingham, England.

Legacy

While some biographers, historians, and computer scientists have questioned the statement that Lovelace was the first programmer, her contributions to the development of the computer remain undisputed.

Over a century before the invention of the transistor or the microchip, Lovelace envisioned the vast capabilities of today’s computers. Far beyond the mathematical calculations Babbage believed to be the limit of their capabilities, Lovelace correctly predicted that computing machines could someday translate any piece of information, including text, pictures, sounds, and music into digital form. “The analytical engine,” she wrote, “might act upon other things besides numbers, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations (programs).”

Lovelace's contributions remained relatively unknown until 1955 when her “Notes” to Babbage were republished by English scientist and educator B.V. Bowden in his groundbreaking book “Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines.” In 1980, the U.S. Department of Defense named its newly developed high-level computer programming language "Ada," after Lovelace.

Her vision for turning Babbage’s Analytical Engine from a simple number-crunching machine into the multi-purpose computing wonders we depend on today is one of the reasons Ada Lovelace is regarded as a prophet of the computer age. 

Sources and Further Reference

  • Wolfram, Stephen. “Untangling the Tale of Ada Lovelace.” Wired, December 22, 2015, https://www.wired.com/2015/12/untangling-the-tale-of-ada-lovelace/.
  • “Ada Lovelace, the ‘Lady Fairy’ and Lord Byron’s Prodigious Daughter.” Faena Aleph, https://www.faena.com/aleph/ada-lovelace-the-lady-fairy-and-lord-byrons-prodigious-daughter.
  • Stein, Dorothy. “Ada: A Life and a Legacy.” The MIT Press, 1985, ISBN 978-0-262-19242-2.
  • James, Frank A. (editor). “The Correspondence of Michael Faraday, Volume 3: 1841-1848.” IET Digital Library, 1996, ISBN: 9780863412509.
  • Toole, Betty Alexandra. “Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers: Prophet of the Computer Age.” Strawberry Press, 1998, ISBN 978-0912647180.
  • Nambi, Karthick. “The First Computer Programmer And A Gambler — Ada Lovelace.” Medium: Predict, July 2, 2020, https://medium.com/predict/the-first-computer-programmer-and-a-gambler-ada-lovelace-af2086520509.
  • Popova, Maria. “Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer, on Science and Religion.” BrainPickings, https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/12/10/ada-lovelace-science-religion-letter/.
  • Bowden, B.V. “Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines.” Isaac Pitman & Sons, January 1, 1955, ASIN: B000UE02UY.
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Longley, Robert. "Biography of Ada Lovelace, First Computer Programmer." ThoughtCo, Feb. 19, 2021, thoughtco.com/ada-lovelace-biography-5113321. Longley, Robert. (2021, February 19). Biography of Ada Lovelace, First Computer Programmer. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ada-lovelace-biography-5113321 Longley, Robert. "Biography of Ada Lovelace, First Computer Programmer." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ada-lovelace-biography-5113321 (accessed May 15, 2021).