Advancing Epigenetics Towards Systems Biology

Ada Lovelace (Lady Byron)

The mother of all computer nerds

Name: Augusta “Ada” King, Countess of Lovelace
Nationality: English
Lived: 1815-1852
Fields: Computer programming, mathematics
Claim to fame: Creator of the world’s first computer program

The computer revolution has been led by a veritable army of unsung and famous nerds, including the likes of geeks-in-chief Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. But the mother of all computer nerds has to be Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), the daughter of the famous Romantic poet Lord Byron, who is widely regarded as the world’s first “computer programmer”.

The enchantress of numbers

Augusta “Ada” King, Countess of Lovelace, known more commonly as Ada Lovelace, does not fit the popular profile of a computer nerd. Born into English nobility, she was the only legitimate daughter of the  legendary Romantic poet Lord Byron, although she never knew her “mad, bad and dangerous to know” father, who moved to mainland Europe a few months after she was born, where he died in 1824.
Her mother, Anne Isabella Milbanke, was keen to ensure that her daughter did not turn out to be like her erratic, absent father. She introduced Ada to mathematics at an early age as a means of rooting out the insanity of which she accused Lord Byron. Ada’s life was to prove to be a struggle between emotion and reason, poetics and mathematics, ill health and bursts of energy. This complex interplay manifested itself as early as 1828, when Ada mixed romanticism with science to produce a design for a flying machine.

Numerical advantage

Despite her passion for mathematics and obscure learning, Ada was a “dainty” socialite. At court, she danced often and was able to charm many people, including Charles Babbage, the inventor of the programmable computer, who called her the “enchantress of numbers”.
In 1835, she married William King, the Earl of Lovelace, with whom she had three children.
Throughout her childhood and beyond, Ada suffered from poor health. For instance, in 1829, a bout of measles left her paralysed for months. Interestingly, Ada herself interpreted her illnesses as a prerequisite for her mathematical powers. To some extent, she even viewed her own body as a ‘molecular laboratory’ that produced a ‘calculus of the nervous system’. In part, this may have been a reaction to the paradox of the woman scientist.
She died in 1852 of uterine cancer and, in an interesting parallel with her father (next to whom she is buried), it is blood letting by surgeons, in combination with a mixture of opium, wine, chloroform and cannabis, which is believed to have killed her.

The world’s first software guru

In the early 19th century, science was not yet a profession and was regarded largely as a “gentlemanly” pursuit. Although Ada Lovelace was not a “gentleman”, her access to elite London society served her well. One of her acquaintances was Mary Somerville, the noted researcher and scientific author who introduced her to Charles Babbage in 1833.
This marked the start of a long and valuable friendship and scientific partnership. In 1822, Babbage had proposed what he called the Difference Engine, a rudimentary, mechanical calculator. The British government initially financed the project, but withdrew funding when Babbage repeatedly asked for more money while making no apparent progress on building the machine. By 1837, Babbage’s thinking had evolved towards a more general purpose computer called the Analytical Engine which was also to become the victim of a lack of political will.

Digital dreams

Ada was one of the few people who understood Babbage’s idea and developed an incredibly prescient vision of its potential. In a bid to galvanise support for the Analytical Engine, Ada worked furiously for nine months between 1842 and 1843 translating and commenting on Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea’s memoir on the machine.
In fact, her notes were longer than the memoir. In them, she explained the difference between the Difference Engine, which required a human operator to set the initial values that had been computed and set into columns, and the Analytical Engine which used “operation cards” to perform mathematical operations on numerical data as well as to respond to symbols representing data. She also outlined a detailed method for calculating Bernoulli numbers with the Engine, which is now recognised as the world‘s first computer program.

Scientific achievements

Ada Lovelace, who called herself an “analyst and metaphysician”, is generally regarded as being the world’s first computer programmer – even though no functioning computers had been built during her life.
She not only demonstrated the Analytical Engine’s mathematical potential, but also foresaw the capability of computers to go beyond mere calculation at a time when most experts, including Babbage himself, focused only on these number-crunching capacities.
Ada described how the Analytical Engine was capable of computing general information and stressed its ability to be programmed. She even speculated that “the Engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent” – effectively presaging the digital music age. In recognition of her position as the godmother of software programming, the Ada high-level computer language was named in her honour.

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