April 10, 2019
Writer: IT Communications Writer
“Imagination is the Discovery Faculty, pre-eminently. It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science.”
- Ada Lovelace
Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace—better known as Ada Lovelace—was the only legitimate child of Lord Byron and Lady Anne Isabella. Her parents separated a month after she was born. She grew up with her mother exposing her to the unusual studies of mathematics and the sciences—all subjects that were typically reserved for men only in that era. When Ada showed great talent in mathematics at a young age, her mother influenced her scientific studies further and hired the best tutors. Dr. Betty Toole, who published transcripts of a selection of Lovelace’s letters in 1992, said, “Her understanding of mathematics was laced with imagination and described in metaphors.”
Ada called her way of thinking ‘poetical science.’ When she was 12 years old, she went about in a logical and methodical manner to try and develop flight by studying the anatomy of birds. She decided what materials she should use, considered the size the wings should be built, the material her flying machine should be built from, and what equipment would be needed. She decided to write a book, Flyology, as a way to illustrate her mathematical findings. Ada wrote, “I have got a scheme to make a thing in the form of a horse with a steam engine in the inside so contrived as to move an immense pair of wings, fixed on the outside of the horse, in such a manner as to carry it up into the air while a person sits on its back.”
The most significant event in her life occurred at the age of 17 when she was introduced to Charles Babbage, an inventor, fellow mathematician, and mechanical engineer. He found the young woman engaging and hungry to learn, and he became so impressed with her that he invited Ada to see a demonstration of his Difference Engine the following month; a two-foot-tall machine that had the ability to calculate numbers. All of Babbage’s guests were amazed by his Difference Engine, but Ada didn’t just find his invention fascinating, she also imagined the potential of the machine. The wife of her math tutor, Sophia De Morgan, observed in her diary with typical early 1800s colonialism that, “When most of the guests looked on with the expression that savages show on seeing a looking glass, Miss Byron, young as she was, understood its working and saw the great beauty of the invention.”
Ada and Babbage formed a friendship that lasted to Ada’s deathbed, at the young age of 36. Ada’s insights into his inventions were greatly due to her imagination and the mathematical calculations she used to back up her findings. Where he saw practicality, she saw potential. Babbage, who called her the “enchantress of numbers,” once wrote that she “has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects (in our own country at least) could have exerted over it.”
It was while Ada was translating Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea’s article on Babbage’s newest machine, the Analytical Engine, that she truly foresaw how Babbage’s machine could be used. As she translated, Ada appended a set of notes that became so detailed and so long, they were twice the length of Menabrea’s original paper. Ada theorized that like a Jacquard Loom, Babbage’s Analytical Engine could adapt a type of code it could use to create works of art, not just answer equations. She imagined Babbage’s machine as having the power to understand symbols, like writing, and it could be used to create music or art. Ada even had a fleeting notion that machines like the Analytical Engine would one day have the power of artificial intelligence. About the Analytical Engine, Ada wrote, “It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform.”
Ada defied her gender’s perceived norm simply by using her great intellect and imagination, which few women of status found proper. She powered through British society, impressing all who knew her because of her mind. After her death in 1852, her work became largely unknown, yet because Babbage encouraged her to write and publish her translation notes about Menabrea’s article on the Analytical Engine, she was rediscovered in the beginnings of the 19th century. 100 years after her death, her work inspired a British man building his own computer to help end the second world war. Alan Turing, the code breaker. She inspired generations of computer programmers because she used her imagination to ask a simple question—what if?
Oh, and one more thing: In 1986, a new computer code was created by the US Airforce to prevent pilots and commercial flights from accidental collision. They named it, ADA, in honor of Lady Lovelace. 134 years after her death, Ada finally got to fly.