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Today is the day!: Ada Lovelace

The final female Mathematician profile for now must, of course, be Ada Lovelace. Today is Ada Lovelace Day – a day marked for the celebration of Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).

Born Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace on {10}^{\text{th}} December 1815, Ada had an interesting start to life. She was the only legitimate child of Lord and Lady Byron, however Lord Byron had been wanting a son. He left Ada’s mother when Ada was only a month old, and left England never to return when she was 4 months old. She never got to meet her father as he died when she was 8 years old, though she is mentioned in his 1816 poem Fare Thee Well, which he wrote to her mother. Ada didn’t have a close relationship with her mother either, and was mainly raised by her maternal grandmother.

Lovelace was always inquisitive and ambitious. Aged 12 years old she decided that she wanted to fly. She decided the first step was to make herself wings, and in February 1828 construction began. Unlike many children her age, who would have dived straight into the building, Ada first conducted meticulous research. She investigated various materials including paper, oilsilk, wires, and feathers. She also analysed the anatomy of birds, to ascertain the correction proportions between the wings and her body. She wrote her findings in an illustrated book (complete with plates!) which she titled Flyology. Following the construction of the wings, she considered what equipment would be necessary (such as a compass to “cut across the country by the most direct road”). The culmination of the project was to consider how to involve steam in “the art of flying”.

Ada was a regular at court by the time she was 19. She enjoyed the dancing and found herself able to charm other attendees easily. On July {8}^{\text{th}} 1835, she married William {8}^{\text{th}} Baron King. She was a descendant of the extinct Barons Lovelace and in 1838 her husband became Baron Lovelace, making her countess of Lovelace.

Throughout the 1840s, Ada was no stranger to scandals, with rumours of extra-marital relationships and affairs. She also enjoyed gambling and allegedly once lost more than 3000 on a horse. This hobby of hers led to her forming a syndicate with some male friends. In 1851 she attempted to create a mathematical model for larger bets, but this went catastrophically wrong. She ended up thousands of pounds worth of debt to the syndicate and had no choice but to own up to her husband.

In terms of her education, Ada was very lucky. Her mother was keen for her to avoid the insanity she claimed plagued Byron hence she ensured Ada was well educated from a young age. One of her later tutors was mathematician and logician Augustus de Morgan, who saw a lot of mathematical talent in her.

Lovelace was tutored by Mary Somerville* and the two became close friends. In 1833, Somerville introduced her to Charles Babbage. Babbage was very fond of Lovelace and referred to her as “Lady Fairy”. She, in turn, was fascinated with Babbage’s prototype of his difference engine and tried to see him as much as possible. 

The work she’s most famous for is translating Luigi Menabrea’s article on Babbage’s proposed analytical engine into English, in particular the notes she added. This includes a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers using the Analytical Engine which is widely considered as the first example of a computer program. There is controversy here though as many of the so-called programmes in her notes were actually just transcriptions of things Babbage had written many years earlier but not published. Some historians argue she did not actually have the skill herself.

The notes were around three times as long as the article itself and we labelled A-G. In her notes Ada saw the potential for use of the machine far beyond number crunching, which is undisputedly a big contribution she made to the field, and where she really showed her own insight. In these notes, she wrote:

“[The Analytical 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.”

Lovelace and Babbage had a minor falling out when the papers were published, when he tried to leave his own statement (criticising the government’s treatment of his Engine) as an unsigned preface, which could have been mistakenly interpreted as a joint declaration

Ada Lovelace died of uterine cancer on {27}^{\text{th}} November 1852, possibly exacerbated by bloodletting by physicians. There are several films and novels including her or with characters based on her (including Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia) and a fictionalised version of her appears in a Doctor Who Episode. She is also immortalised in events such as Ada Lovelace Day, today.

*Mary Somerville is another favourite Mathematicians of mine – I fully intend to write a profile about her soon too!


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