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Tracing the History of the Computer - Ada Lovelace, Augusta Ada King


Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (December 10, 1815 - November 27, 1852) is mainly known for having written a description of Charles Babbage's early mechanical general-purpose computer, the analytical engine.


Ada was the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron and his wife, Annabella Milbanke. She was named after Byron's half-sister, Augusta Leigh, by whom he was rumoured to have fathered a child. It was Augusta who encouraged Byron to marry to avoid scandal, and he reluctantly chose Annabella. On January 16, 1816, Annabella left Byron, taking 1-month old Ada with her. On April 21, Byron signed the Deed of Separation and left England for good a few days later. He was never allowed to see either again.

Ada lived with her mother, as is apparent in her father's correspondence concerning her. Lady Byron was also highly interested in mathematics (Lord Byron once called her "the princess of parallelograms"), which dominated her life, even after marriage. Her obsession with rooting out any of the insanity of which she accused Lord Byron was one of the reasons why Annabella taught Ada mathematics at an early age. Ada was privately schooled in mathematics and science, one of her tutors being Augustus De Morgan. An active member of London society, she was a member of the Bluestockings in her youth.

In 1835 she married William King, 8th Baron King, later 1st Earl of Lovelace. They had three children; Byron born 12 May 1836, Annabella (Lady Anne Blunt) born 22 September 1837 and Ralph Gordon born 2 July 1839. The family lived at Ockham Park, at Ockham, Surrey. Her full name and title for most of her married life was The Right Honourable Augusta Ada, Countess of Lovelace. She is widely known in modern times simply as Ada Lovelace.

She knew Mary Somerville, noted researcher and scientific author of the 19th century, who introduced her in turn to Charles Babbage on June 5, 1833. Other acquaintances were Sir David Brewster, Charles Wheatstone, Charles Dickens and Michael Faraday.


During a nine-month period in 1842-1843, Ada translated Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea's memoir on Babbage's newest proposed machine, the Analytical Engine. With the article, she appended a set of Notes which specified in complete detail a method for calculating Bernoulli numbers with the Engine, recognized by historians as the world's first computer program. Biographers note, however, that the programs were written by Babbage himself, and Lovelace simply found a mistake in the first program and sent it back for amendment. The evidence and correspondence between Lovelace and Babbage indicate that he wrote all of the programs in the notes appended to the Menebrea translation. Her prose acknowledged some possibilities of the machine which Babbage never published, such as speculating that "the Engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent".

Ada Lovelace was bled to death at the age of 36 by her physicians, who were trying to treat her uterine cancer. Thus, she perished, ironically, at the same age as her father, and from the same cause - medicinal bloodletting. She left two sons and a daughter, Lady Anne Blunt, famous in her own right as a traveller in the Middle East and a breeder of Arabian horses.

At her request, Lovelace was buried next to the father she never knew at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottingham.

Controversy over attribution

Biographers have noted that Lovelace struggled with mathematics, and there is some debate as to whether she understood deeply the concepts behind programming Babbage's engine, or was more of a figurehead used by Babbage for public relations purposes.

As a woman pioneer in computing, Lovelace occupies a politically sensitive space in the canon of historical figures in computer science, and therefore the extent of her contribution versus Babbage's remains difficult to assess based on current sources.


  • On December 10, 1980, (Ada's birthday), the U.S. Defense Department approved the reference manual for their new computer programming language, called "Ada".
  • The U.S. Department of Defense Military Standard for Ada (MIL-STD-1815) was assigned a number to commemorate the year of her birth.
  • On the math-mystery cartoon, Cyberchase, she appears as the animated character Lady Ada Lovelace, voiced by Saturday Night Live comedian Jane Curtin. The episode is "Hugs and Witches" (#201) which premiered February 14, 2002 on PBS Kids GO!.
  • She is one of the main characters in the alternate history novel The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, which posits a world in which Babbage's machines were mass produced and the computer age started a century early.
  • Lord Byron's Novel by John Crowley is a pastiche of a novel supposedly by Byron (in real life he did begin writing one, but is not known to have completed it), discovered after his death by his daughter, edited and with commentary by her.
  • Her image can be seen on the Microsoft product authenticity hologram stickers.


Charles Babbage

Difference Engine

Analytical Engine

Ada Programming Language

History of Computers


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