The Life of Ada Lovelace

The mathematician and pioneering computer programmer was born on 10 December 1815.

Computer love: Ada Lovelace, by Margaret Sarah Carpenter, 1835.

Now hailed as the world’s pioneer computer programmer, she was the only legitimate child of Lord Byron, the poet, though he had plenty of illegitimate offspring. Her mother was Annabella Millbanke, who was Byron’s polar opposite. Where he was wildly romantic, bisexual, depressive and a colossal talent, she was narrowly religious, withdrawn, cold and prim. They married in their 20s early in 1815 and Ada was born in their London mansion near Hyde Park Corner. Byron was already feeling trapped.

The new arrival was named Augusta after her father’s half-sister Augusta Leigh, but Annabella had suspicions about Byron’s relationship with Augusta and preferred to call the child Ada. When Ada was a few weeks old Annabella took her away to visit her family in Leicestershire. She never returned to Byron and in April 1816 he signed a formal deed of separation and left the country for good. He died in Greece in 1824 when Ada was eight years old. She had no memory of him at all, but she often thought about him, wistfully. 

Annabella had Ada educated at home by tutors and had her well grounded in science and mathematics to suppress any poetical leanings. Ada was brilliantly intelligent and took to maths like a cygnet to water. Through her father’s family and friends she came to move in smart London social circles and at 17 in 1833 she was presented at court, but she was far more excited less than a month later when she went to a party where she met Charles Babbage.  

Babbage was an outstanding mathematician who was working on what he called his ‘analytical engine’, to carry out abstruse calculations. It was the forerunner of the computer. He and Ada took to each other immediately. They kept in close touch and she helped him with his work.

In 1835, aged 19, Ada married a Lord King, who was soon created Earl of Lovelace, which made her Countess of Lovelace. They would have three children, but she continued to work with Babbage. In the 1840s she translated an article about his analytical engine by an Italian mathematician, adding her own explanations and ideas. They included a method for calculating a sequence of numbers (known as Bernoulli numbers) which would have worked if Babbage’s machine had been completed and is now considered the first computer programme.

Ada always felt that there was poetry in higher mathematics. Her relationship with her mother grew increasingly strained and, when she died in agony of cancer in 1852 aged 36, at her request she was buried next to her father in the village church at Hucknall in Nottinghamshire.