Ada, Countess of Lovelace

It’s Ada Lovelace Day… or was on the 24th… I missed it.

Ada Augusta Byron, Countess of Lovelace (quell romantic name!), daughter of Lord Byron and Anne Isabelle Milbanke (her mother separated shortly after her birth so she never knew her father. She was his only legitimate child) was born 10 December 1815 – 27 November 1852.

Ada Byron was a life-long friend and supported of Charles Babbage whose inventions included what he called the “Difference engine”, made to compute values of polynomial functions (although he never actually constructed a model); and his Analytical engine used loops of Jacquard’s punched cards to control a mechanical calculator, which could then formulate results based on the results of preceding computations.

Byron’s deep interest in mathematics included a study of various areas of mathematics. Her translation, at the behest of Babbage, of the study of his Analytical engine by Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea, between 1842 and 1843, and her own notes on the work and on the machine, including her own algorithm encoded for processing by a machine (a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers with the Engine. Had the machine ever been built, her program would have worked.) are considered the first computer program. While others, including Babbage, himself focused only on the calculating abilities of the machine, Byron forsaw greater uses of the machine. “The engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”

The actual credit for the algorithm has been debated and some give Babbage the actual credit, However, her notes on the Menabera work confirm that she well understood both Jacquard’s punch-card system as well as that functioning of the Analytical engine. Indeed, Babbage who rarely mentioned the influence of others in his work,  stated that

“I then suggested that she add some notes to Menabrea’s memoir, an idea which was immediately adopted. We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced: I suggested several but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process.”

Many believe it was actually she who suggested the use of Jacquard’s punched cards to Babbage for use in his machine.

Byron died at the age of 36 from uterine cancer.


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