The first thing a casual reader notices about Augusta – Ada – Byron, if they notice anything at all, is her surname. It was a lasting influence on her life bequeathed to her by her father, Lord Byron, the famous English poet. Augusta was his only legitimate child. However, this surname also casts a long shadow over Ada’s own legacy as a genius who became the first ever computer programmer in history, all the way back in 1843.
“Is thy face like thy mother’s, my fair child! / ADA! sole daughter of my house and heart?” Byron wrote of her in his semi-autobiographical narrative poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which was to make him one of the biggest celebrities in Victorian England. His romantic reconstructions, though, flatter to deceive.
In his private life Byron wanted his progeny to be a boy, and upon his separation with Lady Byron he made no attempt to keep custody of Ada even though Victorian England’s rules were heavily skewed in favour of the husband in matters of custody.
Instead, Byron was exiled from Britain weeks after Ada was born and embarked upon the journey described in his epic, never to see Britain or Ada again. He died when she was eight. Nevertheless, his effect on her life can be gauged by the fact that Augusta is remembered by history as “Ada” – the nickname Byron gave her after a cousin of his with whom he was to have an illegitimate child later in life.
Breaking the mould
Lord and Lady Byron’s separation was the story on everyone’s lips when it had happened. Theirs had been a profoundly dysfunctional and abusive marriage, much of it before the public eye, and by the time it ended it had given Ada’s mother, Lady Byron, a lifetime fear of her daughter inheriting her husband’s “madness”. Combined with an obsession with moral piety and her hatred of her ex-husband, this meant that Lady Byron wanted to purge all influence of her father from Ada’s life, so much so that Ada was not even allowed to see a portrait of his until she was 20.
In her youth Ada professed to admire her mother, who had performed quite a feat to retain both custody and property after a separation in a profoundly patriarchal English legal system. She went on to inherit a sizeable estate, which she maintained with great ability after handling much of the debt that Byron had left them in. Moreover, for a woman of her time she was an erudite lady, and it was in mathematics that she sought the antidote for her father’s madness for Ada.
Thus it was that Ada chose the best scientific and mathematical education available at her time, and she started to meld her inheritance of poetic imagination with scientific precision early enough. Her first obsession was flight, for which she designed mechanised wings which could flap – when she was all of twelve. However, it was only after she met her tutor Mary Somberville, and the latter introduced her to Charles Babbage, that her talents were channelled in the direction of what would come to be known as computers.
Meeting Charles Babbage
By this time, Ada had got married and become the Countess of Lovelace. Her new rank made her a regular presence at Queen Victoria’s court, and a frequent companion of Charles Dickens, Michael Faraday, and, of course, Babbage, who became her mentor in what was to become the field of computing. At the time they met, Babbage was working on a “Difference Engine”, a steam-powered precursor to the “Analytical Engine”, which became the prototype of modern classical computer chips.
This was the first time a machine could do basic logical operations such as those employed in logic gates, which essentially meant that it was programmable. Babbage delivered a lecture on his engine which was documented by Luigi Menabrea, an Italian military engineer whose work Ada translated into English. She had discussed the engine with Babbage at great length under his mentorship, and grasped the mathematical framework behind it at least as well as Babbage did himself.
Babbage knew this, and he encouraged Ada to add her own notes to her translation of Menabrea’s article. In her own words, Ada worked on these notes “like a devil possessed”, and produced twice as many pages of notes as the translation. It was in one of these notes that Ada described how Babbage’s engine could generate Bernoulli numbers using a series of steps which, in principle, form a program. This program, written in 1843, is the earliest recorded instance of its kind.
This achievement alone should be enough to cement Ada Byron’s place in the pantheon of pioneering geniuses. However, the true power of her imagination can be seen in her anticipation of the implications of what the Analytical Engine could do, which even its inventor, Babbage, had not thought of. Babbage considered his engine a giant number-cruncher – a mechanical and foolproof substitute for the kind of job human “computers” used to do.
But Ada was able to grasp that many of nature’s harmonies, like music, are mathematical patterns which could, in principle, be modelled by computers. Thus, she talks in her letters of engines like Babbage’s composing music and having elementary conversations at least a century before the invention of modern-day computers.
When she shared her thoughts with Babbage, he expressed regret for not having explored “so rich a vein of the noblest metal” himself, and described Ada in a letter to Faraday as “that enchantress who has thrown her magical spell over the most abstract of sciences and grasped it with a force few masculine intellects could have exerted over it”.
Of ‘masculine intellects’
It is her leap of imagination into the possibilities of computing that makes Ada Byron a genius matching – or even surpassing – both Babbage and her father, who were both great minds, but anchored relatively to their times. Yet both Lord Byron and Charles Babbage, since dubbed the “Father of the Computer”, survive in history and popular culture as mainstream examples of “genius”, while Ada Byron’s name is largely forgotten. Instances of female geniuses are few and far between, as stories of their achievements like that of Ada or Emmy Noether, are neglected by a patriarchal gaze at historiography.
An insight into this time can be gauged even from Babbage’s praise of “masculine intellects” with whom Ada, a female, could hope to match wits. Not just he, but also Augustus De-Morgan of De-Morgan’s Law fame in the philosophical field of logic, who was Ada’s tutor in mathematics for a long time, described Ada as gifted at these “masculine” fields of mathematics and science, but whose “masculine” rigour were sure to tire her feminine sensitivities long-term.
Needless to say, Ada’s obscurity is a direct consequence of her gender in an era where female talents tended to be neglected or forgotten. The Queen’s Gambit’s Beth Harmon is an example of “unstable female genius” and the roadblocks in their way in fiction, but Ada was the archetype. She took a flair for romance and affairs from her father, besides his predilection for gambling. She was the centerstage of gossip in Victorian England, famous for its prudishness and its patriarchy, and despite this she managed to dance well and charm courtiers just as well as her father could.
The only place where Ada felt the need to hide was with her studies. As a result, she had to hide her purchase of books and instruments in science. Her later dispute with Babbage too, by some accounts, was to do with her gender and its perceived inferiority where the “manly” fields were concerned. Babbage was a gifted mathematician, but he could not secure funding, in modern parlance, for the monstrous machines these analytical engines were supposed to be at the time. Ada, ever the social charmer, offered to step in for Babbage for this purpose, and he refused.
Since then, in the many talks and lectures Babbage gave after Ada suddenly fell ill and was unable to continue with her work because of ill health and gambling debts, he hardly spoke of her vision for his engine. As a result, her work was lost for nearly a hundred years before being rediscovered by Alan Turing, the modern father of computers. It was Turing who wrote about Ada’s works in translating Menabrea’s work, bringing word of her genius back from the past.
Centuries after her death, the debate about female under-representation in STEM fields still rages on. Explanation to this day smack of “masculine intellects” being better at these pursuits. One can only imagine the impact Ada’s real story can have on coming generations of programmers, especially from those in her own mould.