Ada Lovelace’s skills with language, music and manual labor contributed to her pioneering work in computing

Ada Lovelace, known as the first female computer programmer, was born on December 10, 1815, more than a century before the development of digital electronic computers.

Lovelace has been hailed as a role model for girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). To mark the 200th anniversary of her birth in 2015, a dozen biographies aimed at young audiences were released. And in 2018, The New York Times added hers as one of the first “missing obituaries” of women in the rise of the #MeToo movement.

But Lovelace – actually Ada King, Countess of Lovelace after her marriage – has drawn on many different fields, including languages, music and needlework, in addition to mathematical logic, for her innovative work. Realizing that her extensive education has enabled her to do work well ahead of her time, she can be a role model for all students, not just girls.

Lovelace was the daughter of scandal-plagued romantic poet George Gordon Byron, also known as Lord Byron, and his highly educated and devoutly religious wife, Anne Isabella Noel Byron, known as Lady Byron. Lovelace’s parents separated shortly after her birth. At a time when women were not allowed to own property and had few legal rights, her mother managed to secure custody of her daughter.

Raised in a privileged aristocratic family, Lovelace was raised by tutors, as was usual for girls like her. She received instruction in French and Italian, music and appropriate handicrafts such as embroidery. Less common for a girl in her time, she also studied mathematics. Lovelace continued to collaborate with mathematics teachers into her adult life, eventually corresponding with mathematician and logician Augustus De Morgan at London University on symbolic logic.

A rare photograph of Ada Lovelace.
Daguerreotype by Antoine Claudet via Wikimedia

Lovelace’s algorithm

Lovelace drew on all of these lessons when writing her computer program – actually it was a manual for a mechanical calculator that was only partially built.

The computer in question was the Analytical Engine designed by mathematician, philosopher and inventor Charles Babbage. Lovelace had met Babbage when she was being introduced to London society. The two bonded over a shared love of mathematics and a fascination with mechanical computing. In the early 1840s, Babbage had won and lost government money on a mathematical calculator, fell out with the skilled craftsman who made the precision parts for his machine, and was on the verge of abandoning his project. At this point, Lovelace stepped in as an advocate.

In order to introduce Babbage’s calculator to a British audience, Lovelace suggested that an article describing the Analytical Engine be translated into English. The article was written in French by the Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea and published in a Swiss journal. Scholars believe Babbage encouraged her to add notes of her own.

Ada Lovelace envisioned the possibilities of computing in the early 19th century.

In her notes, which became twice as long as the original article, Lovelace drew on various areas of her education. Lovelace began by describing how instructions are encoded on cards with punched holes, such as those used on the Jacquard loom, a device patented in 1804 that used punched cards to automate weaving patterns in fabrics.

Lovelace had learned to embroider herself and was familiar with the repetitive patterns used in needlework. Similar repetitive steps were required for mathematical calculations. To avoid duplicating cards for repetitive steps, Lovelace used loops, nested loops, and conditional testing in their program statements.

The notes contained instructions for calculating Bernoulli numbers, which Lovelace knew from her training were important in the study of mathematics. Their program demonstrated that the Analytical Engine was able to perform original calculations that had not yet been performed manually. At the same time, Lovelace noted that the machine could only follow instructions and not “make anything”.

a yellowed sheet of paper with tabular lines
Ada Lovelace created this diagram for each program step to calculate the Bernoulli numbers.
Courtesy of the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & TechnologyCC BY-ND

Eventually, Lovelace realized that the numbers manipulated by the Analytical Engine could be viewed as other types of symbols, such as musical notes. An accomplished singer and pianist, Lovelace was familiar with notation symbols representing aspects of musical performance such as pitch and duration, and she had manipulated logical symbols in her correspondence with De Morgan. It wasn’t a big step for her to realize that the Analytical Engine could process symbols – not just crack numbers – and even compose music.

A versatile thinker

The invention of computer programming wasn’t the first time Lovelace brought her knowledge from different fields to a new topic. As a young girl, for example, she was fascinated by flying machines. She brought biology, mechanics and poetry together and asked her mother for anatomical books to study the function of bird wings. She built and experimented with wings and in her letters metaphorically expressed her longing for her mother in the language of flight.

Despite her talents in logic and mathematics, Lovelace did not pursue a scientific career. She was independently wealthy and never made any money from her scientific activities. However, this was common at a time when freedom—including financial independence—was equated with the ability to conduct scientific experiments impartially. In addition, Lovelace devoted a little over a year to her only publication, translating and annotating Menabrea’s article on the Analytical Engine. Otherwise, in her life, interrupted by cancer at the age of 37, she vacillated between math, music, her mother’s demands, caring for her own three children and finally a passion for gambling. Lovelace is therefore not an obvious role model for girls today as a scientist.

However, I find Lovelace’s way of drawing on her extensive training to solve difficult problems inspiring. True, she lived in a time before scientific specialization. Even Babbage was a polymath, dabbling in mathematical calculations and mechanical innovation. He also published a treatise on industrial manufacture and another on religious issues of creationism.

But Lovelace applied knowledge from what we now consider to be distinct areas in the sciences, arts and humanities. As a versatile thinker, she created solutions that were way ahead of their time.

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