Ada Lovelace: The World’s First Computer Programmer

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Podcast Transcript

Born in 1815, Ada Byron was the only legitimate child of the famous poet Lord Byron. 

Unlike her famous father, Ada did not pursue a literary career. Guided by her mother, she took a diametrically different path studying math and logic.

At the age of 17, she had a chance encounter with Charles Babbage, who was designing the world’s first mechanical computer. It was the beginning of a groundbreaking collaboration that would only be understood over a century later.

Learn more about Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Ada Byron was born on December 15, 1815, to Lord and Lady Byron. 

Her father, George Gordon Byron, was one of the best-known English poets of the Romantic Era.  He came upon his title of 5th Baron of Byron in 1798 at the age of 10 from a great uncle who died without any heirs. 

While a brilliant poet, he developed a reputation as being an agnostic and a libertine, which was scandalous in early 19th century England.

Ada’s mother, Annabella Milbanke, grew up in a strict religious household. She was tutored in mathematics and science, and her marriage to poet Lord Byron was considered by many to be a very odd pairing. 

It turned out that what many people thought turned out to be right. As brilliant of a poet as Lord Byron was, he was just as horrible of a husband and father. 

Just one month after Ada was born, her mother took her to live with her family because Lord Byron refused to stopping having an affair with an actress he was seeing. At the time in England, if a couple were to separate, custody of any children would be given to the father. Lord Byron, however, didn’t challenge the custody and never saw his daughter again. 

The couple was legally separated but remained technically married until Lord Byron’s death in 1824 in Greece when Ada was only eight years old. 

Lord Byron had no part in Ada’s upbringing whatsoever. 

The split between Ada’s mother and father was very acrimonious, with Lady Byron making many accusations about her husband’s morality. 

It was so bad that Lady Byron wanted to make sure that Ada didn’t wind up like her father. The last thing she wanted was for her daughter to become a flaky, temperamental poet, so she had her tutored in mathematics and logic, as well as a host of other subjects, including foreign languages. 

This was a very odd education for a woman in early 19th century England. It was still 100 years before the first women would be admitted to Oxford or Cambridge, and the education for an aristocratic woman would usually entail music, language, and literature. 

Ada’s mother had a similar education, for which Lord Byron mocked her, calling her the “Princess of Parallelograms”. 

At the age of 12, Ada showed curiosity and promise. She became interested in the idea of flying, which was still 80 years away. She did a study of birds and wings, made drawings, and wrote a book about it called Flyology.  She even considered the integration of a steam engine with her flying machine. 

If this reminds you of someone else, it should. A guy by the name of Leonardo de Vinci. 

Granted, she was only 12, and like Leonardo, her designs would never actually fly, but the point was that she was thinking about the problem and, in particular, considered the integration of the most important invention of the age, the steam engine. 

Ada’s tutors were all top-notch and included Mary Somerville, a Scottish astronomer who was one of the first women inducted into the Royal Astronomical Society. 

To put this in modern terms, Ada was homeschooled by some of the best teachers and was really smart. 

The event which would change her life and make her noteworthy enough for an episode of this podcast took place in 1833 when she was just 17. 

At a party which was held by the aforementioned Mary Sommerville, she met the English mathematician Charles Babbage. Babbage held the Lucasian chair of mathematics at Cambridge, the same one held by Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking.

At the party, Babbage was drawn into a conversation with Ada and told her about the machine he was working on called the Difference Engine. 

I previously did an episode on the Babbage Difference Engine. To summarize, it was the world’s first mechanical computer. Babbage’s Difference Engine could perform calculations unlike machines that came before it, which were just complicated clocks.

You could give it an input and get an output. There was even rudimentary memory and a method of outputting data. It did all of the basic functions of a modern computer, it just did it without electricity and with thousands of gears. 

Several months later, Babbage invited Ada to come and see his Difference Engine. She became fascinated by the device and came by as often as possible to talk to Babbage, who found her intellect stimulating. 

In 1935, she then went on to marry Barron William King, who was later upgraded to the Earl of Lovelace, thanks to a distant relative on the part of Ada, making Countess Lovelace. 

They had three children over the next four years, and all the while, Ada never lost interest in Charles Babbage and his Difference Engine. 

Her big break occurred in 1842. She was asked to translate an article in French by an Italian engineer named Luigi Menabrea about the Difference Engine. Fun fact: Luigi Menabrea went on to become the Prime Minister of Italy.

She spent nine months on the translation. However, she didn’t just translate the article. She did much, much more. She provided her own notes, which served as an appendix to the article, which ended up being three times longer than the article itself. 

In the notes, she basically set forth what would become computer science over a century later. 

Babbage, while designing an incredible machine, never really saw the potential of what it meant beyond calculating numbers. Ada had the foresight to see exactly what this machine could potentially do. 

For starters, she saw the Difference Engine as the next step in evolution after the Jacquard loom. The Jacquard loom was a steam powered loom introduced in 1801 which could weave an enormous number of potential patterns all based on punch cards. The holes in the punch cards would correspond to various hooks which would be raised or lowered, which would shape the resulting pattern. 

Ada saw that the Difference Engine could do for mathematical patterns, what the Jacquard loom did for patterns in cloth. 

In one of the notes she laid out a set of instructions for how the Difference Engine could calculate Bernoulli Numbers. Bernoulli Numbers were challenging to calculate, and her algorithm for how a computational machine could calculate these numbers is considered to be the first computer program. 

In it she set out the idea of the machine repeating a series of instructions, which today is known as a loop in computer programming. 

Perhaps her biggest insight was that numbers didn’t have to just represent numbers. If numbers could be used to represent things like letters and musical notes, then the Difference Engine could be used for far more than simple mathematical calculations. 

She wrote:

[The Difference Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine…Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent

Her insight also realized that the potential of the Difference Engine created an entirely different discipline beyond mathematics. She called it the science of operations, but today we would probably just call it “computer science”. 

She wrote:

A new, a vast, and a powerful language is developed for the future use of analysis, in which to wield its truths so that these may become of more speedy and accurate practical application for the purposes of mankind than the means hitherto in our possession have rendered possible. Thus not only the mental and the material, but the theoretical and the practical in the mathematical world, are brought into more intimate and effective connection with each other.

Ada was only 27 when the paper was published. 

As profound and insightful as Ada Lovelace’s ideas were, they were actually forgotten for over 100 years. 

Babbage could never get funding for his Difference Engine. As brilliant as everyone thought it was, it was in some ways too advanced, and it was seen as too much of a risk to spend the money on.

Without a machine, Ada’s ideas didn’t really go anywhere. The theoretical power of the Difference Engine didn’t really matter if there was no Difference Engine. 

Ada outsmarted her own mathematical abilities and developed a severe gambling habit. She thought she could develop a system to beat the odds, and she never could. She lost thousands of pounds on horse racing. 

She died of cancer in 1852 at the age of 36, the same age that her father died. 

Despite never having known her father, she developed an obsession with him her entire life and when she died, she requested to be buried at his side, which was honored. 

The death of Ada Lovelace isn’t the end of the story however. While she was well before her time, eventually machines were developed which could do the things that she envisioned. 

Her writings were rediscovered in the 1950s when digital computers were coming into existence. Her notes were republished by the English Scientist Baron Bertram Bowden in his 1955 book “Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines.”

With the rediscovery of her work a larger audience realized just how early she foresaw the power of computers. 

She has been a character in many steampunk stories. There have been books, movies, and plays about here.

The Ada programming language was named in her honor. The NVIDA corporation named their graphic processor architecture after her. There is a crypo currencer named after her as well. 

In 2015, on the 200th anniversary of her birth, symposiums were held around the world in her honor. 

The second Tuesday of every October is Ada Lovelace day. 

Ada Lovelace was so far ahead of her time that some actually consider her more of a computing prophet than a pioneer. 

Despite having no idea of electricity, let alone the powerful computation devices which it would allow, she alone saw the potential for what computers could do an entire century before they were ever actually built. 


The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

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