The First Computer Programmer Isn’t Who You’d Image | by Ida Larsdotter | April 2022

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Ada Lovelace has 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 10, 1815 in London. She was the daughter of poet Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke. Lord Byron was violent, often threatening to kill himself. When he started threatening to kill Annabella, she took Ada with her and ran away. In February 1816, the couple legally divorced. Lord Byron left England in April of that year, never returning.

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

Ada was educated 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 to the Royal Astronomical Society. With Somerville’s help, 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 fervent abolitionist. She donated some of her wealth to help slaves flee America to the UK.

In 1833, Ada met Charles Babbage. Babbage was a mathematician who had developed a theoretical machine capable of performing mathematical calculations. Ada and Babbage became friends, and Babbage became a mentor to young Ada.

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

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

Mary’s half-sister, Claire Clairmont, came with the couple. Byron and Claire would have a short romantic relationship. This 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 years old. There were also rumors that Lord Byron fathered a daughter with his half-sister Augusta Leigh in 1814. Ada was made aware of these troubling claims 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 was discouraged from being interested in her father, she named her two sons ‘Byron’ and ‘Gordon’. His daughter was called Anne.

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

Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Unknown photographer. Public domain via Wikimedia commons.

Recognizing Ada’s brilliant intelligence, she was approached in 1842 and asked to translate and annotate a French paper on the applications of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. The notes Ada wrote based on this article were more than three times longer than the original text.

In her annotations, Ada wrote what some consider to be the world’s first computer program. She had written an algorithm that the analytical engine was supposed to run.

Ada was perhaps the first person to recognize that one day computers would be useful for more than math. The word “computer” means “one who calculates”. Charles Babbage and other contemporary mathematicians were simply interested in what computers could mean for mathematics.

Charles Babbage died before he could build a complete analytical engine. It remained theoretical. Ada died at age 36 of uterine cancer. Both are praised by historians for laying some of the foundations of computing.

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