THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF THE ENCHANTRESS OF NUMBERS – THE POETICAL SCIENTIST COUNTESS AUGUSTA LOVELACE
by Tyne O’Connell
Countess Augusta “Ada” Lovelace, nee Byron was the only child of the marriage between the poet Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke, a lady of great mathematical ability whom Byron called his Princess of Parallelograms.
Ada was Lord Byron’s the only legitimate child, is one of the most celebrated Dandizette’s of the Victorian period. Describing herself as a “Poetical Scientist” in deference to her father she is credited with being the first computer programmer and the Prophet of the Computer Age. Her algorithm for Babbage’s Analytical Engine is recognised as the world’s first computer program. Babbage called her “The Enchantress of Numbers.”
She died in 1852 at the age of 36 – the same age her father Lord Byron was upon his death. She asked to be buried beside her father at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene Hucknall, Nottingham.
Lovelace’s extraordinary personal life as the only legitimate daughter of the poet Lord Byron confirms her place in history. But her exceptional achievements as the Prophet of the Computer Age has historically eclipsed her role as Dandizette, devoted mother, gambling fiend and all round St James’s party girl. Her life as the daughter of a mathematician and a poet was an apotheosis of emotion and reason yet such was her achievements as the Enchantress of Numbers that little has been written about the keen horsewoman, devoted dancer and gambler, mother and wife.
Born on the 10th December 1815, Ada’s father the famous Dandy and Poet Lord Byron was disappointed she wasn’t “the glorious boy” he longed for and following legal separation from her mother at Lady Byron’s bequest, he left England never to return four months after Ada’s birth. However he named Augusta after his beloved half sister with whom he had an incestuous relationship and Byron himself gave her the nick name “Ada” by which she was known.
Ada’s mother, Annabella Isabella Byron was a highly educated woman in her own right and known in society as Princess Parallelogram. Lady Byron was committed to the abolition of slavery and one of the few women to attend the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention. She was also active in prison reform and a devout Anglican. Her high minded politics and religious fervour made her an odd match for the morally fractured and dramatically dark poet and Dandy Lord Byron. In fact, Annabella turned down Byron’s first proposal but he was determined to have her as his wife and pursued her energetically for another year until she finally relented to marry him.
Lord & Lady Byron lived on Piccadilly Terrace but were legally separated a short time after Ada’s birth. However in separation as in marriage their relationship was passionate and fraught with Lady Byron driven by her bitterness against her husband and convinced Byron was insane. After leaving England, Lord Byron never saw his daughter again although he sent for both Ada and her mother before he died of disease in Greece where he had gone to fight in the Greek War of Independence. Ada was eight years old when her father Lord Byron died. She was twenty-one before she ever saw so much as an image of her father.
Lady Byron was convinced that her husband’s insanity was a result of literature and insisted that Ada’s education be limited to the study of science and mathematics to limit her daughter’s chances of developing the moody temperament of her poetic father. She also insisted she lie still for extended periods of time in the hope this would help her acquire self control. Although Lord Byron had no contact with his daughter after she was four months old, he asked his sister to keep him informed of Ada’s welfare. Due to the controversy over her parents separation and Byron’s infamy, Ada was famous in Victorian society.
Like her father, Ada was a sickly child and her mother busy with her causes left Ada’s grandparents to care for her. Fortunately Annabella’s mother Judith doted on Ada. Everyone was aware of Ada’s remarkable intellect from a young age and Mary Sommerville the noted Scottish Science writer and polymath was employed as her tutor. Mary Sommerville was the second scientist in the UK to receive recognition after Caroline Herschel. Ada and her tutor were very close and continued to correspond for many years. It was Mary Sommerville in fact who introduced Ada to Babbage. Ada was closely linked to many leading scientists of the time and also to the author Charles Dickens.
By 1834 she was a regular at court and described as charming and dainty. she enjoyed attending balls and was a keen gambler. In 1835 she married William King, 8th Baron King. The pair shared a passionate love for horses and her husband supported his wife’s academic pursuits. In 1838 her husband was created the Earl of Lovelace.
After her marriage Ada lived on St James’s Square. She contracted cholera two years after marriage which took a grave toll on her health. Doctors gave her painkillers, such as laudanum and opium which caused mood swings and hallucinations. They had three children including a son whom she named Byron in honour of her father.
In 1841 Ada and Medora Leigh (daughter of Lord Byron’s half sister Augusta Liegh) were told Lord Byron was both Medora and Ada’s father ,making them half sisters. Ada took the news of her father’s incestuous relationship with his half sister in her stride, writing to her mother the same year, “I am not in the least astonished. In fact you merely confirm what I have for years and years felt scarcely a doubt about, but should have considered it most improper in me to hint to you that I in any way suspected”
Ada did not blame her father for the incestuous relationship but blamed his half sister. “I fearshe is more inherently wicked than he ever was” This drove her mother to attack her father even more bitterly. She couldn’t bear her daughter’s refusal to hate Byron.
Ada Lovelace first met Charles Babbage when she was seventeen through their mutual friend and her tutor the famous scientist Mary Somerville. Babbage and Lovelace were fascinated and attracted to one another’s intellects instantly. Their relationship was intense and there were fallings out and arguments but their friendship was not only social but historic in its importance. They had a deep and abiding respect for one another that lasted their entire lives.
Babbage was impressed by Lovelace’s analytic skills. In 1843 he wrote of her:
“Forget this world and all its troubles and if
possible its multitudinous Charlatans – every thing
in short, but the Enchantress of Numbers.”
Lovelace and Babbage spent a great deal of time discussing mathematical and scientific principles as they wandered through the grounds of the Lovelace family lodge, Worthy Manor in Ashley Combe Somerset. Built as a hunting lodge in 1799, the house was built on a small plateau in woodland overlooking the Bristol Channel and surrounded by terraced gardens in the Italianate style.
It was the perfect place for two great minds to unravel the philosophical implications of the world’s first computer. Ada was unique in her ability to grasp and communicate the true significance and possibilities of Babbage’s Difference Engines as the worlds first computer. In honour of Lovelace and Babbage’s long philosophical walks, part of the terrace became known as “Philosopher’s Walk”.
Between 1842–43, Ada translated from the French an article from the Italian mathematician, Luigi Menabrea’s memoir on Babbage’s newest proposed machine, the Analytical Engine which is now considered the first computer. Lovelace not only translated the article of Menabrea but wrote extensive notes in which she managed to explain the purpose of the machine to the scientific community who until then had been unable to grasp the concept and having dismissed both Babbage and his machine as unimportant.
Lovelace immediately saw the difference between the Analytical Engine and previous calculating machines, noting the device had the potential to extended far beyond mere number crunching, specifically its ability to be programmed to solve problems of any complexity.
“The Analytical Engine might act upon other things besides numbers, 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.”
Her ideas represented a conceptual leap regarding the possibilities of computing devices, and foreshadowed the modern computer.
Ada’s notes which were longer and more detailed than the memoir itself explaining how the Engine differed from the original Difference Engine. She explained in complete detail, a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers with the Engine, which we now know would have run correctly had the Analytical Engine been built. In fact, only the Difference Engine has ever been built and even that was not completed until 2002 in London.
Lovelace and Babbage had a minor falling out when the papers were published because Babbage wanted to add a sulky statement about the government’s disrespectful treatment of his Engine as an unsigned preface to Lovelace’s paper. But he refused to sign it. In refusing to sign his sulky note, Lovelace pointed out that it would imply that she was also the author not just of the paper but of his petty preface. In the end the publisher, “Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs” ruled that Babbage must sign his note.
Babbage again wrote to Ada asking her to withdraw her paper entirely as he didn’t want his name attached to his own scathing attack on the government and to preserve his reputation she should refuse to have her paper published. Understandably she wrote back refusing to withdraw the paper which represented three years of her work. He continued to sulk and subsequent historians have suggested that he only sought her out for her the fame of her name in order to make his pompous point about how ignorant the scientific community were in ignoring his genius.
Lovelace and Babbage soon made up but it reflected badly on Babbage though Lovelace forgave him and even wrote to him from her death bed asking that he be the executer of her will.
In 1953, over one hundred years after her death, Ada’s notes on Babbage’s Analytical Engine were republished. The engine has now been recognised as an early model for a computer and Ada’s notes as a description of a computer program and software.
Even after her famous work with Babbage, Ada continued to work on other projects. Her desire to create a “a calculus of the nervous system” explaining how the brain gives rise to thoughts and nerves give rise to feelings came to nothing largely due to her obsession with her own ‘potential’ madness which her mother had imbedded in her from a small child. She visited electrical engineer Andrew Crosse in 1844 to learn how to carry out electrical experiments. In 1851, the year before her cancer struck, she wrote to her mother mentioning “certain productions” she was working on regarding the relationship between music and mathematics.
In true Dandizette fashion Countess Lovelace enjoyed to flirt. Because of her fame as Byron’s daughter scandals followed her from birth. She had a very relaxed relationship with men which led to rumours of affairs but her real passion other than horses and numbers was her love of gambling.
Lovelace formed a syndicate with her male friends and, as any Enchantress of Numbers would, attempted to create a mathematical model for placing successful large bets.
It ended rather badly and the Countess Lovelace was soon thousands of pounds in debt. Worse though one of her erstwhile male friends a member of the syndicate blackmailed her into forcing her to admit the mess to her husband.
There were other scandals including rumours of affairs but there is no written proof. She was certainly fond of Andrew Crosse’s son John as she bequeathed him the only heirlooms her father had personally left to her, bypassing her own children.
Ada Lovelace died at thirty-six – the same age her father was on his death. Her death was diagnosed as uterine cancer and she spent several months in abject agony. Under her mother’s influence, she was denied any opiates that might relieve her pain in order that she would repent her sins. Her mother Annabella took over her death watch and excluded all of her friends and confidants. She had a religious transformation and was coaxed into making Annabella her executor. Her husband left her bedside a few months before her death after she confessed something to him which may or may not have been an affair.
Countess Ada Lovelace, Poetical Scientist, Enchantress of Numbers and Prophet of The Computer Age, was buried at her own request, against her mothers wishes, beside her father the Poet, Lord Byron at the Church of St Mary Magdalene in Nottingham.
And read on for more from Tyne O’Connell with an insightful look at sexism v misogyny