Ada Lovelace: Founder of Scientific Computing

Happy birthday to Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, patron saint of computer programmers. “The Enchantress of Numbers” was born this day in 1815, in London, the only legitimate (tch, what an insulting term that is!) child of Lord Byron. Her mother, Isabelle –a math whiz in her own right nicknamed “The Princess of Parallelograms” by P.M. Benjamin Disraeli– separated from Byron shortly after Ada’s birth, and raised her to be unlike her eccentric poet father, emphasizing tutelage in music and math. (Ada never met Lord Byron, who died in Greece, aged 36.)

Ada Lovelace is best known for her work describing the Analytical Engine, an early mechanical general-purpose computer conceived by mathematician/inventor/philosopher Charles Babbage. Today, she’s recognized as the “first programmer” for her work on the computing machine that Babbage hadn’t even built yet. Unlike Babbage or anyone else, she had the foresight to recognize the potential for computers to evolve past simple calculations and number-crunching. Her voluminous notes included predictions for future developments as far-out as computer-generated music! She accomplished this in an era where, to put it gently, noblewomen were not encouraged to engage in such rigorous intellectual pursuits.

Like her father, Lovelace was headstrong, prone to fits of melodrama, and she died young. Her family buried her next to Lord Byron in the yard of the Church of St Mary Magdalene in 1852.

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12 Responses to “Ada Lovelace: Founder of Scientific Computing”

  1. john colby Says:

    The film with Tilda Swensen is excellent sorta trippy in a david lynch way. It also uses ,what were for the time, pioneering CGI effects.

  2. ignotus Says:

    Sigh… I’m all for recognizing badass women in the history of science, but the scholarly biographies of Babbage I read argued that Lovelace was pretty overrated. She was smart for sure, but iirc didn’t do a whole lot beyond editing, translating and speculating (she’s often credited with writing the first programs). She also had the worst parents ever, what with her dad being an abusive SOB and her mom being a self-righteous sadist who effectively tortured Ada on her (ada’s) deathbed.

    Of course, Babbage himself (much as I love the guy) also gets more credit than he deserves for originating the computer, something that originated primarily as a way to stop a bunch of IBM and DoD guys from brawling forever over the title.

  3. Valentina Says:

    It was only a few days ago that I was trying to remember her name. A true genius, so ahead of her time. I’m intrigued to see the film now. Great post!

  4. Nadya Says:

    I’m a huge fan of Ada. I loved the character that Sterling/Gibson made out of her in The Difference Engine, and I also enjoyed Conceiving Ada. Although a lot of her accomplishments have passed into legend, I actually like to think of her in a more romantic way than what she probably actually accomplished as a programmer. Simply put: she’s a muse.

  5. john colby Says:

    She liked to play the ponies…a lot.

  6. Jerem Morrow Says:

    And so my education continues.

  7. Rex Parker Says:

    She is also a bigtime crossword puzzle answer. I mean, there’s Nabokov’s novel, and there’s her.


  8. cappy Says:


    I for one didn’t like her depiction in The Difference Engine — wasn’t she made out to be a bit of a tart?

    But aye, anytime someone says women haven’t been present in Computer Science’s history, I kindly point out Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper.

  9. Nadya Says:

    cappy: Actually, that’s exactly what I liked about it. They were writing the archetypal steampunk novel and it would’ve been SUCH an obvious, easy choice to make her ZOMG THE KICK-ASS QUEEN OF NUMBERS but instead they chose to make her a really flawed person. Like, they exaggerated all her flaws. She wasn’t likeable at all. And I loved that.

  10. R. Says:

    *feels bad because she gave away her copy of The Difference Engine without reading it*

    You learn something new everyday. :D

  11. bunny Says:

    Wow, she sounds really fascinating. Thank you for the information, Mer!

    Ignotus: While you may have read “scholarly biographies” that claim she is overrated, your offering the opinions of unnamed sources adds little to the discourse. I also fail to see the pertinence of her parental models where her contributions to computer science are concerned. Discarding the latter point, which I’m quite beyond finding relevant, would you care to enumerate some cogent points as to why she is “overrated?”

    I also think you are mistaken about the honors bestowed on Babbage serving only to quell supposed arguments between IBM and DOD scientists. Many examples of computational machines exist as far back as ancient Greece as seen in the Antikythera mechanism. Even if you choose to write off the speculation as to this ancient mechanism’s function other examples remain. There is Alan Turing and the Colossus which was instrumental during WWII to decode German ciphers, as well as ENIAC created in 1946.

    I wonder if you’re not confusing the DOD claims to originate the computer with its quite valid claim to have invented the Internet (ARPANET, born in beautiful Los Angeles, California to be precise)?

  12. wchambliss Says:

    Hi Bunny: To be fair, the first ARPANET deployment may have connected a computer in UCLA with one at the Stanford Research Institute, but the underlying network technology (the routers, specifically, which were then called IMPs) was designed and built in Boston at a firm called Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN) by the likes of Severo Ornstein, Bernie Cosell, and Will Crowther (who later wrote the game “Colossal Cave Adventure”, and who, like Ada Lovelace, has been an idol of mine for some years).

    If anyone’s interested, Katie Hafner wrote an extremely readable book about this stuff called Where Wizards Stay Up Late. I’d recommend it both to fellow history-of-technology nerds and anyone with a passing interest in how email works.

    As a side-note, has anyone here heard of an Indian mathematician named Panini? In the 5th Century BCE, he pioneered what would later (and by “later”, I mean 2500 years later) be known as computational linguistics. It’s awe-inspiring how prescient this guy was.