Ada Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron on 10 December 1815. She was the first child of the celebrated poet Lord Byron and his wife, Anne Isabella Milbanke. Byron had expected his first born to be a ‘glorious boy’ and was disappointed to learn of Ada’s birth.
In 1816 Bryon and Annabel separated after an unhappy and difficult marriage and Byron left England for good, never to see his daughter again. Ada and her mother went to live with her grandparents. Annabel was a cold, controlling, and distant mother who would often refer to Ada as “it” and forbade her from seeing any likeness of her father until she was twenty years old.
Ada was a sickly child. At the age of eight she was paralyzed following a severe bout of measles and spent nearly a year in bed before regaining her mobility. It may well have been these bouts of illness that led Ada to develop her mathematical and technological skills as she proved to be a highly inquisitive and studious child. At the age of 12 she became obsessed with flight and conducted countless experiments, built wing prototypes and wrote a book entitled ‘flyology’.
Ada formed a close bond I with her tutor, the Scottish science writer and polymath Mary Fairfax Somerville, whom she greatly admired. Fairfax had been hired after Ada had attempted to elope with her previous tutor and the pair remained in contact for many years. In adulthood she was a regular at court and in 1835 married William King, the 8th Baron King and soon to be Earl of Lovelace. Unlike her parents, Ada and William appear to have enjoyed a happy marriage and went on to have three children.
Ada remained devoted to maths and science throughout her adult life, describing her approach as “poetical science” and herself as an “Analyst and Metaphysician”. Her talents came to the attention of the eminent mathematician and engineer, Charles Babbage after the pair were introduced in 1833 by Mary Somerville. The pair formed a close personal and working relationship after he invited her to inspect his ‘difference engine’. Ada was fascinated by the machine and Babbage was enamoured by her mathematical ability, once referring to her as his “enchantress of numbers”.
Babbage recruited Ada to write articles and notes for a memoir on his famous proposal of the “Analytical Engine”. Ada proved to be one of the few minds in Britain capable of grasping and understanding the concept behind Engine’s function and her highly detailed notes are perhaps the only truly comprehensive contemporary explanation of how the machine would work and what it was capable of. These notes remain a valuable resource to computer historians and many eminent computer scientists such as Michael Faraday have held her writings in high regard. Her writings on the methods for calculating complex number sequences with the machine have led to some to describe her as the world’s first computer programmer and are widely viewed as the first true computer porgramme. She was one of the very fist people to realise that the potential of computers extended far beyond crunching numbers as her ability and insight exceeded that of nearly all her contemporaries in an age when women’s participation in science was actively encouraged.
Babbage and Ada remained close friends until her death in 1852 at the age of 36, with Ada requesting Babbage as as the executor of her will. Ada is still celebrated by computer scientists to this day. The US Department of Defense named the computer language ‘Ada’ in her honour, the British Computer Society has awarded medals in her name while ‘Ada Lovelace Day’ and ‘The Ada Initiative’ are ongoing schemes to celebrate and raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths.