The First Computer Programmer Isn’t Who You Would Image | by Ida Larsdotter | Apr, 2022

Ada Lovelace made invaluable contributions to the field of mathematics

Portrait of Ada Lovelace, circa 1840. Possibly by Alfred Chalon. Public domain via Wikimedia commons.

AAugusta Ada Byron was born on December 10th, 1815 in London. She was the daughter of poet Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke. Lord Byron was abusive, often threatening to kill himself. When he began to threaten to kill Annabella, she took Ada with her and fled. In February of 1816, the couple legally divorced. Lord Byron left England in April that year, never again returning.

Annabella Milbanke was a brilliant self-taught mathematician. Lord Byron often made fun of her for that, calling her “the princess of parallelograms”. When Ada was nine years old, her father died. Although Ada never got to know her father, Annabella feared that Ada would inherit his mental illness. By encouraging Ada to pursue mathematics and the physical sciences, Annabella hoped to curb that. Because of her wealth, Annabella could afford to hire private tutors for her daughter.

Ada was tutored by William Frend in the humanities, and in medicine by her family doctor. She was also taught by Mary Somerville, one of the first women to be admitted into the Royal Astronomical Society. With help from Somerville, Ada would design flying machines and boats.

Annabella Milbanke was a philanthropist who cared deeply about a myriad of social issues. From her mother, young Ada heard of the horrors of slavery. Annabella was a staunch abolitionist. She donated some of her wealth to help enslaved people flee America for the United Kingdom.

In 1833, Ada with Charles Babbage. Babbage was a mathematician who had come up with a theoretical machine that would be able to perform mathematical calculations. Ada and Babbage became friends, and Babbage became a mentor for young Ada.

Lord Byron, 1813. By Thomas Phillips. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Although Ada would never get to know her father, he would have a big impact on her. After leaving England in April 1816, Byron rented a villa on Lake Geneva. He invited friends to stay with him. The newly wedded couple Mary and Percy Shelley visited in the summer of 1816. Mary would write her magnum opus, Frankenstein, during her stay at the villa.

Mary’s half-sister Claire Clairmont came with the couple. Byron and Claire would have a short romantic relationship. That affair resulted in the birth of a daughter, Allegra, in 1817. Ada and Allegra would never meet.

In 1822, Allegra developed a fever that would prove fatal. She was five. There were also rumors that Lord Byron had fathered a daughter with his half-sister Augusta Leigh in 1814. Ada was told of these disturbing allegations by her mother.

At the age of 19, Ada married William King-Noel, a man ten years her senior. The couple would have three children together. Although Ada had been discouraged from having any interest in her father, she named her two sons ‘Byron’ and ‘Gordon’. Her daughter was named Anne.

Ada also specifically requested to be buried next to her father, which she was.

Charles Babbage’s analytical machine. Unknown photographer. Public domain via Wikimedia commons.

Recognizing Ada’s brilliant intellect, she was approached in 1842 and asked to translate and annotate a French-language article about the applications of Charles Babbage’s analytical machine. The notes that Ada wrote based on that article were over three times longer than the original text.

In her annotations, Ada wrote what some consider to be the first computer program in the world. She had written an algorithm that the analytical machine was supposed to carry out.

Ada might have been the first person to recognize that one day, computers would be useful for more than just maths. The word ‘computer’ means ‘one who calculates’. Charles Babbage, and other contemporary mathematicians, were just interested in what computers could mean for mathematics.

Charles Babbage died before he could ever build a complete analytical machine. It remained theoretical. Ada died at age 36 from uterine cancer. Both are praised by historians for laying some of the foundations in computer science.

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