The Countess of Lovelace

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (Ada Lovelace), was born in England 10 December 1815. She was the only child of the poet Lord Byron. Ada was pushed to learn mathematics from a very early age because her mother wanted to ward off any of her father’s perceived insanity. As a teenager Ada’s talent in mathematics lead to a working relationship with Charles Babbage, the father of computers, known for his work on the Analytical Engine. 

At age 26, Ada translated an Italian article about the calculating engine, and appended to it an elaborate set of notes, three times longer than the article itself. These notes contained what many consider to be the first computer program, the first algorithm designed to be executed by a machine. They are a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers using the Analytical Engine, which was never actually built, so her program has never been tested. 

She referred to her research method as poetical science, which led her to ask unprecedented questions about Babbage’s Analytical Machine that Babbage himself hadn’t considered, such as how society relates to technology as a collaborative tool. 

Ada’s creative approach to science is shown in her letters and notes, she once wrote while studying differential calculus, “I may remark that the curious transformations many formulae can undergo, the unsuspected and to a beginner apparently impossible identity of forms exceedingly dissimilar at first sight, is I think one of the chief difficulties in the early part of mathematical studies. I am often reminded of certain sprites and fairies one reads of, who are at one’s elbows in one shape now, and the next minute in a form most dissimilar.” Her imagination was as dedicated to metaphysics as it was to mathematics, geared to explore “the unseen world around us.” 

Ada firmly believed the Analytical Engine had the ability to solve problems of any complexity, and that its applications extended far beyond number crunching. 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.

Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine (never fully realized during his lifetime)

Despite this realization, Ada dismissed the idea of artificial or machine intelligence in her notes. She wrote that “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths.”

Ada died at age 36, in 1852, from uterine cancer exacerbated by bloodletting. In 1844 she had written to a friend about her desire to create a mathematical model, ”a calculus of the nervous system”,  for how the nervous system gives rise to feelings and the brain to thoughts. Though this model was never created, it is a testament to her creativity and belief that science can uncover the best explanations for the way things are. Ada is recognized as a mathematical genius, the first computer programmer, and a prophet of the computer age.

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