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October 11, 2016

Ada Lovelace Day: 5 fascinating facts about the STEM pioneer

What better way to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day then to look into the life of the woman behind the name.

By Ellie Burns

Today, Tuesday 11 October, is Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of celebration for the achievements of women in science, engineering and maths. The day aims to increase the profile of women in STEM, create new role models for women and encourage more girls into STEM.

But who is the woman behind the name? CBR looks into the life of Ada Lovelace and brings you some interesting facts about the women regarded as the first computer programmer.

 

The Hon. Augusta Ada Byron

Lord Byron

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, by Richard Westall.

Ada was born on December 10 1815 and was the only legitimate child of Lord Byron, the notorious poet who was ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. Byron left Ada’s mother just a month after she was born, leaving England never to return four month later.

Byron died in the Greek War of Independence when Ada was 8, yet she remained interested in her father – she was buried next to him at her request. Her mother remained bitter towards Byron throughout her life, with Ada only being shown the family portrait of her father on her twentieth birthday.

Friends in high places

Ada Lovelace

Portrait of Ada by British painter Margaret Sarah Carpenter (1836).

Ada counted Charles Dickens, Michael Faraday, Charles Wheatstone, Sir David Brewster and Andrew Crosses as acquaintances, as well as forming a close relationship with Mary Somerville who was her tutor. Somerville would later go on to introduce Ada to Charles Babbage.

Ada was presented at Court at 17 and became extremely popular thanks to her brilliant mind and charm. On 8 July 1835, she married William, 8th Baron King and became Lady King. They had three children; Byron, Anne Isabella and Ralph Gordon.

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Aviation

ada_byron_aged_seventeen

Ada, aged seventeen, 1832. Originally from the Lovelace-Byron Collection.

Ada was often ill as a child, made bed bound by measles and suffering from headaches which obscured her vision. However, illness did not stop Ada developing her maths and technology skills and at twelve years old took on aviation.

She started to make wings in February 1828, investigating different materials such as paper, oilsilk and feathers. Ada looked at the anatomy of birds to try and work out the proportions of body versus wings, in addition to deciding what equipment, like a compass, she would need on a flight. This culminated in the young Ada writing a book on her findings, entitled Flyology.

Charles Babbage

charles-babbage

Charles Babbage, The Illustrated London News, 4 November 1871.

Ada met Charles Babbage, known as ‘the father of computers’, through her tutor and friend Mary Somerville in June 1833. Shortly after meeting Babbage, he invited her to see the prototype for his Difference Engine, a machine which Ada became fascinated with. Using her relationship with Somerville, she visited Babbage as often as she could, impressing him with her intelligence and analytical skills. Calling her ‘The Enchantress of Number’, Babbage got Ada to work on a translation of Luigi Menabrea’s article on his new Analytical Engine between 1842 and 1843. In her translation she wrote notes explaining the machine and how it differed to the original Difference Engine.

Her notes on the article were around three times longer than the article itself and included a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers using the Engine. It is this calculation that gives rise to Ada being recognised as the first computer programmer, with her method being called the world’s first computer program.

Artificial Intelligence

Ada Lovelace

Blue plaque to Lovelace in St. James’s Square, London.

Ada dismissed the notion of artificial intelligence in Section G of her notes on the Analytical Engine. The cause of much debate and cited by other mathematicians such as Alan Turing, Ada wrote:

“The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. 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.”

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