This “computing countess” wrote the first computer program

On a summer Monday evening in 1833, Ada Byron and her mother Anne Isabella “Annabella” Byron visited English mathematician Charles Babbage. Twelve days earlier, when young Byron had met Babbage at a social gathering, she had been fascinated by his description of a machine he was building.

The bronze and steel hand-cranked device used stacks of cogs, metal hammer-like arms, and thousands of numbered wheels to automatically solve mathematical equations. But the difference machine, as Babbage called it, was incomplete. He had completed a small prototype that was about two and a half feet tall. The booming, whirring centerpiece was capable of spitting out answers to difficult math equations. Babbage believed that the complete product had the potential to solve much more complex problems. The Difference Engine demo piece ignited London’s intellectual circles and scientific community, wowing Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens. His performance was almost miraculous even to London’s greatest intellectuals – an almost wizarding sleight of hand for Babbage.

While the Difference Engine wasn’t magic for 17-year-old Ada Byron, it was transformative. Seeing the machine that fateful evening in 1833, she understood how it worked. In Ada, 41-year-old Babbage found his intellectual equal, and over the next two decades Ada proved that his understanding and insight into such machines went far beyond mere calculation.

An analytical childhood

Ada Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron on December 10, 1815 into English Victorian high society. His mother, Annabella Byron, was one of the few educated women of her generation. She passed on her love of knowledge – and mathematics in particular – to her daughter, hiring famous mathematicians to tutor young Ada and instructing Ada herself when she could not find a suitable tutor.

It wasn’t just the selfless pursuit of knowledge that drove Annabella to ensure her daughter received the best education. Annabella feared that too much unchecked imagination could bring out the influence of Ada’s absent father, the poet George Gordon Byron, better known to the world as Lord Byron. Described by one of his mistresses as “mad, evil and dangerous to know”, Lord Byron was famous for his mastery of words and infamous for his licentious and tortured public life. As a romantic-era celebrity, her addiction and mental health issues were on full display.

He and Annabella were briefly married, but when Ada was born, Byron was reportedly quite angry at the gender of the child. One morning in January 1816, less than five weeks after Ada was born, Annabella quietly gathered the baby and left for her parents’ country house, drawing them away from Byron and his influence. Within months, Lord Byron had left England for good. Ada, Bryon’s only child born in the marriage, never knew her father. He died when Ada was eight years old.

Equal intellectual

Lady Byron, fearing that Ada would inherit her father’s self-destructive tendencies, nurtured her daughter’s analytical side, and Ada’s childhood passion for mathematics proved enduring. As Ada entered her late teens, her mother noted (with wry pride) that she was more interested in talking to scientists and mathematicians than potential suitors from the English elite. In 1835 Ada married William King, a member of the English nobility. He soon became the Earl of Lovelace, giving Ada the title of Countess of Lovelace. The two shared a love of horses – and her husband seems to have supported Ada’s intellect and thirst for knowledge.

Perhaps Ada’s most fruitful relationship was her lifelong friendship with Charles Babbage. During an evening together in 1834, Babbage explained to Ada and her mother an idea he had for another invention. Although the Difference Machine—that crank-and-clattering machine he had demonstrated for Ada the previous year—remained unfinished, Babbage was already envisioning a more complicated and capable machine. It would be powered by steam and its wheels would take up as much space as a locomotive.

He called the imagined machine the Analytical Engine, and it would be able to do more than just math; instead, he would be able to”[eat] its own tail,” in Babbage’s words, which meant that the machine could store its outputs and then use them in other equations. Essentially, this machine would not just calculate; it would calculate.

Fascinated by the invention and its potential, Lovelace stayed in close communication with Babbage as he developed the schematics for the machine. In 1842, Italian mathematician (and future prime minister) Luigi Federico Menabrea published an article on Babbage’s proposed machine, which Lovelace eagerly translated into English, hoping to garner more support for the invention in England. She signed her translation only as “AAL”

Along with the translated article, Lovelace submitted his own notes on the Analytical Engine. His “translator’s note” eclipsed the translated article itself, recording well over double Menabrea’s word count. In the notes, Lovelace included his own explanation of how the hypothetical machine works, expressed in much more detail than Menabrea’s original article.

Lovelace explained that the machine would work similarly to the Jacquard loom, an invention that transformed the textile industry in the 19th century. The loom used a series of punched cards to partially automate the mechanical production of woven patterns and images. Rather than a person manipulating certain yarns to create a pattern, the presence or absence of an awl on the card automatically told the loom which yarns to lift, creating intricate designs in a fraction of the time. The cards were a kind of binary code and the analytical engine also ran on punched cards. “The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves,” Lovelace wrote.

Perhaps the most influential of his notes was titled “Note G”. In this note, she wrote a detailed description of how punch cards could be used in the analytical engine to produce a long sequence of Bernoulli numbers – a series of rational numbers that repeat throughout mathematics. His note converted a mathematical calculation into a series of instructions that could be executed by the analytical engine. With this note, Lovelace had written the first computer program – for a machine that didn’t even exist and was known only by description.

poetic science

Lovelace’s vision for the device went far beyond the simple ability to calculate complex equations. In her notes, she argued that anything that could be represented by numbers, such as musical notes and letters, could also be manipulated by such machines. She foresaw a time when people worked in conjunction with such machines. His vision for these devices went well beyond the ideas of Babbage himself, who believed that the usefulness of the machine would stop at calculation.

In her work, Lovelace balanced her mother’s analytical rigor with her father’s whimsy. She published detailed and concrete descriptions of how a hypothetical computer works while writing poetically about the potential for a machined future. His mathematical intellect coupled with his creativity allowed him to envision an abstract field known as computer science. She called her own work “poetic science”.

Lovelace died of uterine cancer in 1852 at just 36 years old. She never saw the completed analytical engine. In fact, the machine was never built. Babbage completed only a small part of the Analytical Engine before his death in 1871. But in 1979, well over 100 years after Lovelace wrote the first computer program, a computer language used in transportation and military systems in the whole world was named Ada in her honor.

Gordon K. Morehouse