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Augusta Ada Byron

"I do not believe that my father was (or ever could have been) such a Poet as I shall be an Analyst; (& Metaphysician); for with me the two go together indissolubly."

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  Augusta Ada Byron (1815 - 1852)
Countess of Lovelace

The only child of British poet Lord George Gordon Byron and Annabella Milkbanke (who was herself a proficient mathematician in an age when ladies just didn't do that sort of thing), Augusta Ada Byron showed an early flair for math and logical thought in what was to be a sadly short life.

Mostly self-educated in mathematics, as her studies advanced Ada found a mentor in Augustus de Morgan, first professor of mathematics at the University of London - and one of the people that can be held accountable for the development of modern algebra.

Ada kept up regular correspondence with the leading scientific lights of her day, and it was through her friendship with mathematician Mary Somerville that she was eventually introduced to Charles Babbage.

Ada was fascinated with Babbage's theoretical ‘difference’ and ‘analytical’ engines, and in 1842 agreed to translate a French account of his technical presentations into English. By 1843 the original 'Notions sur la machine analytique de Charles Babbage' (Elements of Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, Luigi Frederico Menabrea, 1842) had tripled in size with the addition of her own notes and observations.

Babbage - not a particularly warm or likable man by all accounts - was impressed, admitting that: "the more I read your notes the more surprised I am at them and regret not having earlier explored so rich a vein of the noblest metal." (Purple prose was big back then.)

In July of 1843, Ada wrote to Babbage requesting his assistance: "I want to put in something about Bernoulli's Numbers ... as an example of how an implicit function may be worked out by the engine, without having been worked out by human head and hand."

The result was widely accepted as the first computer program. Although it was never tested during her lifetime, when used in today's computers, Ada's Bernoulli calculation program for specialised calculus operations achieves the correct values.

Babbage himself admitted that Ada probably understood his Analytical Engine better than he did himself, conceding even that she was: "far, far better at explaining it".

Cutting through the technical jargon and somewhat whimsical scientific expectations of her time, Ada did indeed understand the Analytical Engine's basic function - an empty box. It didn't actually do anything itself, but merely executed whatever 'program' was applied by its operator. A radical concept in the 19th century.

At one time, Ada even attempted to warn Babbage against building up unrealistic expectations for his invention:

"It is desirable to guard against the possibility of exaggerated ideas that might arise as to the powers of the Analytical Engine. In considering any new subject, there is frequently a tendency, first, to overrate what we find to be already interesting or remarkable; and, secondly, by a sort of natural reaction, to undervalue the true state of the case, when we do discover that our notions have surpassed those that were really tenable. The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate any thing. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform."

Inheriting her father's gift for words, Ada succinctly summed up the concept by comparing Babbage's invention with the Jacquard loom: "The Analytical Engine ... weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves."

Finance being somewhat of a problem, the enterprising couple applied their mathematical prowess to fresh fields (proving, incidentally, that genius and common sense don't always go hand-in-hand) and developed a ‘no-fail’ winning system for horse racing.

Unfortunately, horses not being big on math, the system did fail, and Ada finished her life as a bankrupt laudanum addict, dying of cancer at the age of 36.

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Augusta Ada Byron was a complex, eccentric character, and it's probable that none of her contemporaries ever really understood the woman who managed to combine an amazing intelligence with a supposed alcohol dependency and a drug-induced fixation on fairies.

In a letter addressed to Charles Babbage on July 5, 1843, some nine years before her death, Ada Byron (probably in a chemical haze) attempted to explain herself:-

"That brain of mine is something more than mortal; as time will show; (if only my breathing & some other et-ceteras do not make too rapid a progress towards instead of from mortality).

Before ten years are over, the Devil's in it if I have not sucked out some of the life-blood from the mysteries of this universe, in a way that no purely mortal lips or brains could do.

No one knows what almost awful energy and power lies yet undeveloped in that wiry little system of mine. I say awful, because you may imagine what it might be under different circumstances.

Lord L. [Lord Lovelace, Ada's husband] sometimes says "What a general you would make!". Fancy me in times of social & political trouble, (had worldly power, rule, & ambition been my line, which now it could never be).

A desperate spirit truly; & with a degree of deep & fathomless prudence, which is strangely at variance with the daring & the enterprise of the character, a union that would give me unlimited sway & success, in all probability.

My kingdom however is not to be a temporal one, thank Heavens! ...Labor ipse voluptas [Labour is its own reward - the Lovelace family motto] is in very deed my motto! And, (as I hinted just now), it is perhaps well for the world that my line & ambition is over the spiritual; & that I have not taken it into my head, or lived in times & circumstances calculated to put it into my head, to deal with the sword, poison, & intrigue, in the place of x, y, & z .

Your Fairy for ever


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The mid-1800s wasn't the time to be both an intellectual and a female. Ada Byron, supported by her social position, family names, and brilliant mind, managed to be somewhat accepted - in spite of her ‘fragile' sex.

In an obituary that walks a fine line between being insulting and amusing, the London Examiner admitted that, even though she had: "an understanding thoroughly masculine in solidity, grasp and firmness, Lady Lovelace had all the delicacies of the most refined female character".

The publication conceded:

"Her manners, her tastes, her accomplishments, were feminine in the nicest sense of the word; and the superficial observer would never have divined the strength and knowledge that lay hidden under the womanly graces."

High praise for the times.

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Ada remains one of the few female pioneers of the `computer age' and, as yet, the only woman to be honoured with a programming language bearing her name - ADA, a Pascal-based language developed in a US Department of Defence sponsored project in the 1970's.

Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, is best remembered today as the first computer-programmer, her development of a set of commands to repeat instructions in a ‘loop’ or ‘sub-routine’ becoming the basis for programming of computers that would have fulfilled even her wildest dreams.

Charles Babbage