Ada Lovelace: The Enchantress of Numbers

by Nikita Ved

October 10th marked “Ada Lovelace Day’ in recognition of Ada Lovelace’s fundamental contribution to the field of modern-day computing.

The Honourable Augusta Ada Byron (1815 – 1852), known to most nowadays as Ada Lovelace, was the estranged daughter of the romantic poet Lord Byron. Ada’s interest in machines started at an early age, when she spent many hours reading journals and examining diagrams of new inventions. At the age of 12, Ada designed a steam-powered flying engine, assisted by studying the anatomy of birds to further understand the mechanics of flight. Her designs preceded the aerial steam carriage, patented by William Henson and John Stringfellow in 1842, 15 years later. This was only one of many instances where her designs were years ahead of her time.

In 1832, Mary Somerville, Scottish astronomer and mathematician, introduced Ada to mathematician and mechanical engineer Charles Babbage. Ada, 17 at the time, impressed Babbage, 42, with her intellect, and since began a lifelong friendship and collaboration. Babbage so greatly admired Ada’s mathematical ability, that he named her ‘the enchantress of numbers’.

Babbage was working on the Analytical Engine – a general purpose computing machine that could be programmed to do complex calculations using punched cards. Although never built, Lovelace was fascinated by the Analytical Engine and studied it’s plans in great depth. In 1844, a paper published by A.A.L described in great detail how Babbage’s machine worked. Twenty years after Ada’s death, it became publicly recognised that A.A.L was indeed Augusta Ada Lovelace.

Lovelace’s notes outline many early computer programmes including the first stepwise sequence of operations to calculate Bernoulli Numbers solely through the Analytical Engine from first principles. This gave Lovelace the title of the first computer programmer. But this Victorian visionary didn’t stop at maths. Again, years ahead of her time, she was also the first to recognise that the Analytical Engine could go far beyond mathematical calculations, given the right programming and inputs. “[The Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number…”. Suggesting that it could be used to manipulate symbols, compose music and even write.

Ada Lovelace died in 1852, having never tested her programmes on any computing machinery. However, her legacy lived on as her 1844 seminal paper was a vital component of Alan Turing’s development of the Turing machine at Bletchley during WWII and is still important to modern computing today.

“The Analytical Engine weaves algebric patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves” – A.A.L. 1843