Ada Lovelace – Enchantress of Numbers

Day 204 of Colourisation Project – November 27

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Born Ada Gordon in 1815, the only child of the brief and tempestuous marriage of the Romantic poet, George Gordon, aka Lord Byron, and Annabella Milbanke, she was more commonly known as Ada Lovelace.

She was the child whose father, Lord Byron turned his back on. Four months after she was born, Byron left England forever. He died in Greece in 1823 when she as just eight years old. She never got to meet her father.

Ada Lovelace

Photographer unknown: Ada Lovelace c 1834  –  Coloured by Loredana Crupi

Raised under a strict regimen of science, logic, and mathematics by a mother who feared that her daughter would inherit her father’s volatile ‘poetic’ temperament, Lovelace a child of the Industrial Revolution displayed an early fascination with machines and new inventions. She developed a considerable intellect which manifested in her becoming a mathematical prodigy.

In 1833, when she was just 17, she was introduced to Charles Babbage, Professor of Mathematics and highly regarded for his visionary and perpetually unfinished plans for gigantic clockwork calculating machines. With Babbage serving as a mentor to the much younger Lovelace, they became life-long friends, engaging in a vast exchange of correspondence on all subjects but mainly on mathematics and logic.

In 1842 Babbage asked Lovelace to translate a short article by the Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea, describing his invention, the ‘Analytical Engine’. He also asked her to expand on the article, “as she understood the machine so well”.

The following year nearly a hundred years before the first computer was even invented, Lovelace published her Notes in which she envisioned the future of computer technology as we know it today. Lovelace’s prescient Notes include what is recognised as the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine.  More significantly it anticipates future developments, including her predictions of computer-generated music and graphics.

At the age of 27, Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer had glimpsed the future of information technology.

Charles Babbage described Lovelace as “the Enchantress of Numbers,” who has “thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects could have exerted over it.”

Lovelace considered herself an ‘Analyst & Metaphysician’ and although the concept of the machine belonged to Babbage, it was Lovelace who recognised its potential and was able to eloquently communicate its true purpose and value.

She envisioned an all-purpose computer suited for “developing [sic] and tabulating any function whatever. . . the engine [is] the material expression of any indefinite function of any degree of generality and complexity.”

Lovelace died prematurely of cancer on this day, November 27 in 1852, at the age of 37, and at her request was buried beside the father she never knew, in the graveyard of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Nottingham, England. 

Lovelace’s legacy is succinctly summed up in an article entitled, “Ada Lovelace, on how a poet’s daughter invented the concept of software,”  by Sir Alistair MacFarlane, British electrical engineer and a former Vice-President of the Royal Society:

“Ada Lovelace’s abiding legacy is that, despite all the obstacles in her path, she demonstrated beyond any possibility of doubt that women could attain the highest levels of scientific understanding and achievement… This sudden understanding of the immense possibilities opened up by programmable computers may never be equalled for prophetic insight.”

What a great injustice then that Ada Lovelace’s contributions to the field of computer science fell into relative obscurity after her death and were not discovered until the 1950s. Her Notes were reintroduced to the world by B.Y. Bowden, who republished them in Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines in 1953.

Since that time, Ada has received many posthumous honors for her work. In 1979, the computer software language for the United States Department of Defence was named ‘Ada’ in her honour.

“Ada Lovelace Day” is an annual event celebrated in mid-October whose goal is to “…raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths.”

Better late than never!

__________________________________________________________

But the science of operations, as derived from mathematics more especially, is a science of itself, and has its own abstract truth and value; just as logic has its own peculiar truth and value, independently of the subjects to which we may apply its reasonings and processes.     –    Ada Lovelace

For those so inclined, the full text of Lovelace’s Notes can be read here: Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator

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