The numbers came from her mother. From her father, Lord Byron – poetry and passion.
The future Ada Lovelace was born in a year of European conflict, 1815 – the year Napoleon’s dreams were shattered at Waterloo. That same military spirit ran in Byron’s family. His grandfather was a Naval Vice-Admiral, and his father a captain in the Coldstream Guards. John Byron – ‘Mad Jack’ – left the army to pursue conquests of another type in London, among them Amelia, Lady Carmarthen. They lived on her money till it ran out and they fled to France to escape their creditors.
Amelia gave birth to a daughter, Augusta, but she herself soon died – and Mad Jack returned to England to look for another source of income. This time it was Catherine Gordon of Gight in Aberdeenshire. The Gordons were rich – until Catherine married Mad Jack. He went through her money in two years, and the estate was sold to clear his gambling debts.
So he escaped again to France. She, heavily pregnant, followed him – and all she got was his little sickly daughter Augusta. In a little rented flat in London she nursed the little girl back to health, and in January 1788 gave birth to a son of her own – the future poet Byron. She called him George Gordon, the George after her own father.
The worst of all maladies
Catherine moved back to Aberdeenshire. Byron went to Aberdeen Grammar School, and later Harrow where he represented the school in the first-ever Eton v Harrow cricket match. His mother sometimes spoiled him and often kept him off school. He lacked discipline and neglected his studies – but soon managed to fall in love, to Catherine’s concern.
He has no indisposition that I know of but love, desperate love, the worst of all maladies in my opinion.”
He made firm friendships with other boys at school.
My school friendships were with me passions (for I was always violent).”
But by now he had a title. It came from his grandfather’s brother, who was known as ‘the Wicked Lord’.
The Wicked Lord had started his career as a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and had also become a governor of a charitable hospital. But later a wilder streak began to emerge, and he killed his cousin and neighbour in a duel in a London tavern.
When his son eloped with his niece, the Wicked Lord decided to prevent him from having anything to inherit. He laid waste to the house of Newstead Abbey, cut down trees and killed many deer. But the Wicked Lord outlived both his son and his grandson; and when he died the title and the ruined estate in Nottinghamshire were passed to his 10-year-old great-nephew in Scotland.
Not Spain or Portugal, but Lord Byron!
At Newstead Abbey young Byron made friends with local people who enjoyed staging plays, and they encouraged him to write his first volumes of poetry. He went on to Trinity College Cambridge and then Mediterranean travel.
In 1812 the publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage catapulted him to celebrity status. The book sold out within three days. The Duchess of Devonshire observed that even the Napoleonic Wars, raging in Europe, had to give precedence to such a blaze of fame.
The subject of conversation, of curiosity, of enthusiasm almost, one might say, of the moment, is not Spain or Portugal, Warriors or Patriots, but Lord Byron!”
Readers were captivated by the image in the poems of the glorious yet tragic romantic hero – clearly based on Byron himself. The lines of verse depicted the dangers for any woman who came too close.
Ah, happy she! To ‘scape from him whose kiss Had been pollution unto aught so chaste; Who soon had left her charms for vulgar bliss, And spoil’d her good lands to gild his waste …
Lectures in London
Annabella Milbanke should have known better. She read Childe Harold soon after publication, and within three years had married the author. She was cool and self-possessed and able to look after herself. She needed to, as she was heiress to the estates of her uncle Lord Wentworth, who was in poor health.
She’d come to London for what was called ‘the season’ – the parties and grand balls with the eligible young women on display. But for her London was an opportunity to attend lectures and read books on the latest ideas, in science and religion, or art and literature. She wanted books that could improve the mind and restrain emotion.
The mother of a rejected suitor described her as an icicle. Byron himself called her a ‘Princess of Parallelograms’. Their courtship was through lengthy correspondence, each writing long letters to tell the other why they were totally unsuited.
They met through her aunt, Lady Melbourne. Lady Melbourne’s daughter-in-law, Lady Caroline Lamb, had a passionate affair with Byron – who she described as “mad, bad and dangerous to know” – and Byron had to struggle to escape from her. It was at a morning party at Melbourne House that Annabella first saw him.
His motivation for turning correspondence into courtship varied. It helped to distance him from Lady Caroline. He needed healing from other broken relationships. He also wanted to play down his closeness to his half-sister Augusta, possibly the one person with whom he could feel totally at home.
He married Annabella at the start of the turbulent year of 1815, but in the next January she left him. Their year together was filled with incidents, with Byron drinking and amassing debts. At one stage a bailiff came and live with them to prevent anything of value being taken from the house. Yet they were also, strangely, genuinely fond of each other. She helped to transcribe his poetry, such as She Walks in Beauty, like the Night.
Whither I know not
Annabella also at that time liked Augusta. Indeed, when on 10 December a little daughter was born, she agreed on this name. The second name, Ada, was from further back in the Byron family tree.
But Annabella could not cope with him, and she feared he inherited a strain of madness. Her doctor advised separation, although leaving was heartbreaking.
Byron’s celebrity status made the scandal national news, and rival papers took sides. Rumours resurfaced about his relationship with his sister. Creditors pressed for payment of debts. He realised he must do what Mad Jack had done before – and leave England. Two great friends from student days accompanied him to Dover. Later in the year he wrote a poem to the daughter he would never see again.
Is thy face like thy mother’s, my fair child! ADA! Sole daughter of my house and heart? When last I saw thy young blue eyes they smiled, And when we parted, – not as now we part, But with a hope. – Awaking with a start, The waters heave around me; and on high The winds lift up their voices: I depart, Whither I know not; but the hour’s gone by, When Albion’s lessening shores could grieve or glad my eye.
There were travels in Europe – and romances – and in 1823 he went to Greece to support the movement for independence from the Ottoman Empire. He poured all his passion into the campaign and joined a plan to attack the Turkish-held fortress of Lepanto. But then he was struck by fever that proved fatal.
The news of his death was received with shock and grief. His body was sent back to England for burial. Westminster Abbey was refused on the grounds of what was called ‘questionable morality’ – so he was laid to rest in a church near Newstead Abbey.
A sense of duty
But for little Ada, growing up with her mother, Byron’s world was distant. Annabella wanted to avoid any risk of her daughter inheriting his failings. In fact, Ada was twenty before she was allowed to see any picture of him. Then a sealed casket was opened and a painting brought out.
Her mother was often away, at spa towns or seaside resorts, and Ada was looked after by her grandparents and a succession of nurses. When she was five, a governess was appointed, with Annabella setting a strict remit to teach obedience.
The only motive to be inculcated with a character like Ada’s is a sense of duty, combined with the hope of approbation from those she loves.”
History had to be taught as dates in a sequence, with people judged on Christian principles. Definitely banned was anything that could arouse Ada’s ‘fancy’ – such as ghosts. Facts and moral principles were supreme. Contact with estate workers and villagers was forbidden and after her grandmother died she became very lonely.
But her imagination was developing. She started to wonder if it could be possible to fly. She may have been stimulated by the Greek legend of Icarus escaping prison on wings of wax and feathers.
Thursday, 3 February 1828 My dearest Mammy. I am going to begin my paper wings tomorrow and the more I think about it, the more I feel almost convinced that with a year or so’s experience & practise I shall be able to bring the art of flying to very great perfection. I think of writing a book of Flyology illustrated with plates, if ever I really invent a method of flying. Wednesday, 2 April 1828 My dearest Mammy. I know you will laugh at what I am going to say but I am going to take the exact patterns of a bird’s wing in proportion to the size of its body and then I am immediately going to set about making a pair of paper wings of exactly the same size as the birds in proportion to my size. I have now a great favour to ask of you which is to try and procure me some book which will make me thoroughly understand the anatomy of a bird and if you can get one with plates to illustrate the descriptions I should be very glad because as I have no inclination whatever to dissect even a bird.
But then came illness, and Annabella brought in a little circle of her own friends, who constantly watched Ada and criticised her. Ada termed them the Furies. At the age of sixteen she fell in love with one of her tutors and tried to elope. This was a shock to Annabella. Not only was Ada rebelling – she was also showing the tendencies of a Byron. The Furies agreed.
It was very evident that the daughter who inherited many of her father’s peculiarities also inherited his tendencies.”
The advantages of machinery
Everything seemed upended – but within months Ada’s life took a turn for the better. At a party she met the mathematician Charles Babbage. And she subsequently saw the demonstration model of his calculating machine – the Difference Engine.
Babbage was a talented mathematician, son of a well-off banker. He became involved in life insurance and learned about mortality rates and tables of life expectation. He visited Europe to sell things like glass-making kits and stomach pumps.
In Paris he learned about the metric system, established by the French Revolution – and about the work of recompiling calculating tables in metric form. The task was so great that there weren’t enough mathematicians for it. But one mathematician, Gaspard de Prony, had read the economist Adam Smith’s ideas about speeding up tasks through division of labour. Instead of one man making a complete item, each man in a line would do one small step in the process.
De Prony applied this to mathematical tables. He broke down each process into simple arithmetical steps, like ‘Add 2’ or ‘Subtract 5’. Such simple tasks could then be given to people with only basic knowledge – mainly hairdressers. Many of them had been put out of the work by the Revolution, which had ended the fashion of expensive hairstyles, and also removed many heads. The mathematicians broke down the calculations into very simple units, which the hairdressers carried out, sixty to eighty in a line; and the tables rapidly advanced.
Babbage realised the hairdressers were acting like the components of a machine. So, he wondered, could a machine be built to do this?
One of the great advantages which we may derive from machinery is from the check it affords against the inattention of, the idleness or the dishonesty of human agents.”
To teach it to foresee
Back in London, Babbage developed the idea and built a small working model of a ‘Difference Engine’. But it proved hard to convince government departments to fund it. So he opened his doors for everyone to come and see it in action. Ada came and was fascinated.
Part of Charles Babbage’s uncompleted Analytical Engine (Science Museum, London, via Mr John Cummings)
And now she was also introduced to someone else who would become an influence and inspiration – the mathematician Mary Somerville. She had been born in Jedburgh, the daughter of Vice-Admiral Fairfax, and had become interested in mathematics through solving puzzles in women’s magazines, then borrowing books on geometry and algebra from her brother.
She became an expert on planetary motion, and her tables on the motion of the planet Uranus led to the discovery of the outer planet Neptune. Ada was able to learn more about mathematics with her, and they both spent time with Babbage, discussing his machine and its potential.
Then she was introduced to William King, the eighth baron of Ockham. He was more than ten years older than her, talented in languages though taciturn, and passionately devoted to all aspects of agriculture, from animal husbandry to crop rotation. Marriage to William produced three children – Byron, Annabella and Ralph. In 1838 William became the Earl of Lovelace and Ada became a countess. This took her for a time away from mathematics; but four months after the birth of Ralph, she returned.
Babbage had been developing the next stage in his idea of a mathematical machine. It would go beyond the Difference Engine. It would not only carry out pre-set instructions, but take account of outcomes and choose different routes. He called it the Analytical Engine.
It occurred to me that it might be possible to teach mechanism to accomplish another mental proves, namely – to foresee. The idea occurred to me in October, 1834. It cost me much thought, but the principle was arrived at in a short time. As soon as that was attained, the next step was to reach the mechanism which could foresee to act on that foresight.”
Today we would call this ‘carrying out a programme’.
My sun is rising clear
Word spread, and in 1840 Babbage was invited to a congress of Italian scientists in Turin. Most couldn’t understand how a machine could seemingly choose the approach for making a calculation. A young military engineer was asked to take notes. His name was Captain Luigi Menabrea, later to be Prime Minister of Italy. He was enthusiastic about Babbage’s concept.
The imagination is at first astounded at the idea of such an undertaking; but the more calm reflection we bestow on it, the less impossible does success appear.”
Menabrea published his notes as a paper, in French. The English scientist Charles Wheatstone recommended it to an English journal, and suggested the ideal translator to be … Ada Lovelace. Babbage, who had been ill and out of circulation, was very impressed with her translation.
I asked why she had not herself written an original paper on a subject with which she was so intimately acquainted? To this Lady Lovelace replied that the thought had not occurred to her. I then suggested that she should add some notes to Menabrea’s memoir.”
This was something unusual. Only very occasionally was a woman allowed to write a scientific paper. Further, Ada was not an academic. And the concept was so difficult that most mathematicians and scientists couldn’t follow it. But she’d come through a harsh period of introspection when her mother had told her the story of Byron’s relationship with his sister, and the existence of a daughter in Paris.
The shock brought Ada crashing down. What eventually helped her to recover was mathematics. With it came the beginning of a conviction that the inheritance from both parents was precious. It combined two different approaches to knowledge – the scientific and the poetic, which it would be her role to bring together.
I have now gone thro’ the night of my life, I believe. I consider that my being began at midnight, and that I am now approaching the Dawn.
My sun is rising with a clear, steady & full, rather than dazzlingly brilliant light and is illuminating all around me.”
A new, a vast, and a powerful language
Through long weeks of work she drew from Babbage the exact nature of his ideas, shaping them with a beautiful precision and clarity.
Babbage pictured a kind of production line that a number would go through. It would be stored by cogs, each representing a single digit; each operation would turn the cog. Babbage spoke in terms of a cotton mill. There was the ‘store’ – for cotton or numbers – brought out to the ‘mill’ for processing.
But how to control the running of the cogs? Babbage knew of a system used by weavers. The Frenchman Joseph Marie Jacquard could weave patterns on a loom by controlling it with a large pack of cards with holes punched in them. That, said Babbage, would be the way to control his Analytical Engine. And punched cards had the great advantage of letting the machine repeat a sequence several times and then move to a new group of cards – on its own.
Again, this is what a computer programme does today. At the time it was something far ahead of anything that had been conceived. But Ada realised the implications.
The bounds of arithmetic were outstepped the moment the idea of applying the cards had occurred; and the Analytical Engine does not occupy common ground with mere ‘calculating machines’. It holds a position wholly its own. A new, a vast, and a powerful language is developed for the future use of analysis.”
We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.”
The language of unseen relations
She formulated the vision so well that arguably she understood even better than Babbage where it would one day lead.
But she was starting to feel pain and having to take laudanum drops, and her financial circumstances were not good, with Lady Byron limiting her allowance. She became involved with a horse-race betting group, possibly trying to find the best strategy mathematically. Her debts became so great that she pawned the family jewels.
In August 1851 she was told her illness was terminal, but there was more than a year of suffering ahead. The pain became terrible, yet she somehow held on, although the laudanum confused her. She felt she was only being kept alive because of something to confess, and she eventually told William something that so upset him that he lost his temper and went and locked himself away in his room. It may have been a confession about a man called John Crosse with whom she had spent some time.
William’s distress left Ada in the hands of Lady Byron. She prevented Ada’s friends from visiting, and brought instead her own circle who had caused so much unhappiness in Ada’s childhood. They lectured her, drew out further confessions, and made Ada agree to her mother having complete control over her papers and affairs.
Her mother did not attend the funeral. But William was there to fulfil Ada’s wish – to be buried alongside her father. He never spoke to Lady Byron again.
But Ada lives on in her work, and not only in the principles of computing. It’s in the way that she saw the need to bring together the poetry of her father with the rationality of her mother – to bring to science the full power of the imagination. She wrote about this in an essay of 1841.
“Mathematical Science shows what is. It is the language of unseen relations between things. But to use & apply that language we must be able fully to appreciate, to feel, to seize, the unseen, the unconscious. Imagination too shows what is, the is that is beyond the senses. Hence she is or should be especially cultivated by the truly Scientific, – those who wish to enter into the worlds around us!”
To Lady Byron, science was about facts and experiments and data. To Ada, it had to also involve imagination and the challenge of exploring unseen territory.
The enchantress of numbers
Trying to break through a barrier of comprehension, in a letter to her mother in 1845, she poured a passion like her father’s into her vision:
You will not concede me philosophical poetry. Invert the order! Will you give me poetical philosophy, poetical science?”
Although she saw a long way ahead with the potential of computing, this other vision of science itself is something further still ahead, something fresh for us today. The power of this vision confirms those qualities recognised by Babbage when he said, with a fire and a passion that her father would have loved:
Forget this world and all its troubles and if possible its multitudinous Charlatans – every thing in short but the Enchantress of Numbers.”