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Authors: James Essinger

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A Female Genius: How Ada Lovelace Started the Computer Age

BOOK: A Female Genius: How Ada Lovelace Started the Computer Age
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Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s only legitimate daughter, was rediscovered in the 1930s by computer pioneers such as Alan Turing. Four decades on, a new generation of computer programmers named a widely-used programme ‘Ada’ in honour of her achievements.

A Female Genius
tells the astonishing story how Ada Lovelace would have started the computer age almost two centuries ago, in 1840s London, but for the fetters of social conventions that are felt to this day. It shows how Ada Lovelace was the only one who understood this, despite opposition that the principles of science were ‘beyond the strength of a woman’s physical power of application’.

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer programme and foresaw that music would be created by computers and the emergence of computer science (which she called ‘poetical science’). Hers is one of the most exceptional and inspirational stories in the history of science.

James Essinger’previous book,
Jacquard’s Web: How a Hand-Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age
(OUP 2004) was chosen as one of the top 5 popular science books of the year by the
. While writing this book he got fascinated by Ada Lovelace, who some scientists still consider overrated – the reason why he researched this book. James Essinger read English at Lincoln College, (University of Oxford) and lives in Canterbury.


“Dans un livre qui voudrait… raconter une [vie], il faudrait user, par opposition à la psychologie plane dont on use d’ordinaire, d’une sorte de psychologie dans l’espace… puisque la mémoire, en introduisant le passé dans le présent sans le modifier, tel qu’il était au moment où il était le présent, supprime précisément cette grande dimension du Temps suivant laquelle la vie se réalise.”

In a book attempting to tell the story of a human life, a normal, one-dimensional psychological approach would have to be abandoned, in favour of something more fluid…because, when memory represents the past in the present,without modification, what is lost is the self-same rich dimension of Time, in which actual life experience occurs.

Marcel Proust,
Remembrance of Things Past
– translated by Hilary Rouse-Amadi



I became fascinated by Ada Lovelace while writing my book
Jacquard’s Web: How a Hand-Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age
(2004), by which time a general interest in Ada’s work was well-established. There is a popular software language called ‘Ada’ that was originally developed by the US Ministry of Defence in the late 1970s to unite a host of different programming languages. In 2009, the International Ada Lovelace Day was launched on London’s Southbank to celebrate the achievement of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. There is a Hollywood movie about Ada (written by Shanee Edwards), Enchantress of Numbers, in development.

It would, at least at first glance, appear that science has a chequered record of treating women as equals of men. Indeed, female staff at Bletchley Park, the wartime decryption HQ that cracked German ciphers, were largely unrecognised for their painstaking work. Meanwhile Rosalind Franklin, who did much of the unrecognised Nobel-Prize-winning work on DNA, was ignored in all official recognition of the deduction of the existence of the double helix, to the embarrassment of the male scientists involved.

Whether this is historically a case of sexism or social conditioning of both genders is beyond the scope of this book. (Change is afoot for the future – as Lin Ostrom quipped on becoming in 2009 the first female Nobel Prize winner for economics, ‘I won’t be the last’.) What is clear, though, is that there is a surging interest in the history of women and their contribution to and involvement with science.

While Byron cast a long shadow over Ada’s life, she was only six weeks old when they parted company for ever and so she never met him in any meaningful sense. The more important person was Lady Byron, who had been well-educated by her enlightened parents and moved in liberal circles. She maintained a ferocious control over her daughter’s life and, as it would turn out, death.

The man with whom Ada Lovelace’s story is most closely interwoven is that of her close friend Charles Babbage, the scientist who invented the first mechanical computer. Like Babbage, Ada was tireless in the pursuit of knowledge. She once wrote to him:

I wish to add my mite [might] towards
expounding & interpreting
the Almighty, & his laws & works, for the most effective use of mankind; and certainly, I should feel it no small
if I were enabled to be one of his most noted prophets (using this word in my own peculiar sense) in this world.

Their letters became so intimate that some think that theirs might have a been a romantic friendship.

Unlike Babbage himself, Ada Lovelace saw beyond the immediate purpose of his invention. He had little interest in that question and appears to have seen his invention as a ‘mere’ calculator. She understood that a whole new area of discovery awaited once the real world and abstract mathematics were linked through calculations that no human could ever hope to undertake. She speculated that such a computer, for example, might handle ‘pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent’: a very familiar truth over a century and a half later but inconceivable to scientists at the time.

Ada was passionate, kind, imaginative, excitable and emphatic. She loved emphasising words in the letters and documents she wrote by underlining them (such words are italicised where she is quoted). She was in poor health and used mathematics as a way to regain her balance. She would later in life, when she was in serious pain, use medication that we now recognise as mind-altering drugs. After a long and excruciating deathbed that she appears to have suffered without complaining, she would die of cancer at the age of thirty-six, the same age as her father Lord Byron.

One of the fiercest criticisms of Ada is found in
The Little Engines That Could’ve
(1990) by Bruce Collier. This book, an otherwise shrewd and useful account of Babbage’s work, contains much highly-informed technical material. But Collier writes this about Ada:

There is one subject ancillary to Babbage on which far too
has been written, and that is the contributions of Ada Lovelace… It is no exaggeration to say that she was a manic-depressive with the most amazing delusions about her own talents, and a rather shallow understanding of both Charles Babbage and the Analytical Engine… To me, this familiar material seems to make obvious once again that Ada was as mad as a hatter… I will retain an open mind on whether Ada was crazy because of her substance abuse… I guess
has to be the most overrated figure in the history of computing.

Against this modern opinion one can let Charles Babbage himself give the answer. He wrote about Ada Lovelace on September 9 1843 to Michael Faraday, the nineteenth-century polymath who discovered electrolysis and magnetic induction:

[T]hat Enchantress who 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.

I hope that
A Female Genius
will make it clear that Ada Byron, later Countess of Lovelace, Lord Byron’s only legitimate daughter, should without doubt be included in the list of overlooked women whose potential was treated casually merely because of their gender. There has so far been no biography of Ada that fully defends the genius of her thinking, which prompted me to write this book. Ada’s grasp of complex questions came with such ease that she was able to see beyond it where others needed to work hard to understand even the question itself.

The conversion of money from the past to the present is a highly technical subject. Its problems are discussed in some detail in one example. The conversions in this book are from, which has a detailed and subtle discussion of the data and theory behind calculating worth over time. Ada Lovelace would have appreciated how its sophisticated calculations open up further areas of enquiry, an idea that was revolutionary two centuries ago.



Four miles south-east of the city of Canterbury, home to the great Norman cathedral famous the world over, you’ll find the small village of Patrixbourne. Pretty and well-manicured, the village nestles amidst some of the loveliest countryside in the county of Kent, which has long been known as the ‘Garden of England’. Among the many who have praised the county is Charles Dickens, who in
The Pickwick Papers
wrote affectionately of Kent’s ‘apples, cherries, hops and women’.

Today, on the outskirts of Patrixbourne, a muddy, rutted lane leads towards a large field featuring two long parallel rows of wellingtonia trees that date back to the late nineteenth century. The trees once bordered a long driveway. A few hundred yards south, a narrow stream called the Nailbourne – a local legend holds that it flows only once every seven years – is spanned by a little bridge made from stone and wood. The bridge dates back to the eighteenth century.

The wellingtonia trees and the bridge are the only signs today that there was once a splendid country house here known as Bifrons. The driveway led down to the house and in its day would have been used by horse-drawn coaches heading to the house or leaving it.

As for the bridge, and the stretch of the Nailbourne it spans, these were once part of Bifrons’ extensive grounds. Nowadays, though, the bridge is the only structure that remains on the estate.

Sixty miles from the smoky hubbub of London, Bifrons was an unlikely setting to have nurtured the intellectual development of the most famous woman in the history of technology.

Yet if you’d been visiting the house in the early spring of 1828 and had taken a stroll along one of the footpaths that passed through its grounds, you might have caught a glimpse of a pretty and precocious twelve-year-old girl called Ada Byron playing outside.

Bifrons, before being demolished in 1948.

Ada had a turbulent and exotic background. She was the only legitimate daughter of the poet Lord Byron, in his day one of the most famous men in the world, notorious for his love affairs with both sexes, for the scandal of his passion for his half-sister Augusta, and for his disastrous marriage to Ada’s mother, a well-born young woman named Anna Isabella, shortened to Annabella, Milbanke, who had married Byron on the morning of January 2 1815.

Patrixbourne in 1917.

When Byron married Annabella, he was already famous throughout Britain, Europe and beyond, as much for his amorous adventures as for his poetry.

Annabella put up with him for only a short period. During what was a nightmarish twelve months for her, but business as usual for Byron, the young couple were constantly harassed by creditors chasing debts incurred by Byron’s fabulously extravagant expenditure on anything that caught his fancy.

The couple had a major cash-flow crisis because a dowry Annabella’s parents had promised hadn’t yet arrived. Her parents may have worried that once Byron got his hands on it, he’d leave her – and the dowry never did arrive during the one year and a fortnight that Annabella and Byron were together.

He himself regularly harangued his wife during the marriage with crazy outbursts, including declarations that she made him feel he was ‘in hell’. He made love to Annabella whenever he could, but he was also comprehensively unfaithful to her, notably with his half-sister Augusta and an actress named Susan Boyle, though probably with other women too.

Augusta and Byron shared a father rather than a mother. Incest was by no means rare at the time, when poverty, overcrowding and cold houses meant that several people often slept in the same bed, even in large aristocratic houses. In fact, the aristocracy regarded incest between non-uterine siblings as reasonably acceptable. Byron saw Augusta as fair game. Augusta herself wasn’t much concerned by the technicalities either. She just adored her half-brother.

Ada, born on Sunday, December 10 1815, was just over a month old when Annabella, having decided she could take no more of her husband, stole away with her from a sleeping Byron in the early morning of Monday, January 15 1816.

Annabella and Byron had made love on the night before her morning departure. Despite having fled her husband, Annabella initially retained some affection for him. She and Ada went to stay with Annabella’s parents in Seaham, County Durham. From there, she wrote doting letters to Byron, but her parents heard how he had treated their daughter, and slowly turned her against him.

Details of the disastrous marriage soon got out, not directly from Annabella herself but from her lady friends. Annabella knew this, and had realised when she ‘confided’ in them that they would tell the world. Within a month after Annabella had fled from Byron, the disastrous marriage was the talk of the nation’s drawing-rooms. Soon, fresh rumours began to circulate, that Byron had slept with Augusta during the marriage.

Byron, oppressed by debts, by the outcry over his marriage, and by his conviction that England didn’t deserve a poet as great as him, departed from his native land on Thursday, April 25 1816, three months and ten days after Annabella had left him.

Even the sumptuous gilded coach in which Byron and his friends travelled down to the Kentish sea-port of Dover hadn’t been paid for; bailiffs seeking the price of it were pursuing him. Byron’s coach, a replica of one of Napoleon’s, cost £500 at the time (£500,000 today), or at any rate would have done if Byron had paid for it. The pursuit soon grew more intense. He boarded a ship just in time, taking his luxurious conveyance with him. The bailiffs, with no legal right to pursue him beyond the shores of England, remained in Dover, staring out in frustration at the bubbling Channel.

The Channel was indeed bubbling as if heated by hellfire. Byron escaped his creditors, lovers, Annabella’s wrath, Augusta, England and mundane reality in a ‘rough sea and contrary wind’, as John Hobhouse, a close friend from Byron’s university days, reported.

The weather during the Channel crossing to Ostend, a seventy-five-mile journey, was so harsh the voyage took a nightmarish sixteen hours when it should have lasted less than half as long. During the long and horrible crossing, Byron – amidst bouts of seasickness – wrote the first three stanzas of the third canto of his long poem
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
. The first two cantos had been published, to great success, in 1812. He scratched his anguish at leaving Ada onto paper as the furious waves battered the ship in the darkness, and as England, and all that England meant to him, receded into oblivion:

Is thy face like thy mother’s, my fair child!

Ada! sole daughter of my house and heart?

When last I saw thy young blue eyes they smiled,

And then we parted, – not as now we part,

But with a hope. –

Awaking with a start,

The waters heave around me; and on high

The winds lift up their voices: I depart,

Whither I know not; but the hour’s gone by

When Albion’s lessening shores could grieve or glad mine eye.

Yet Byron’s emotional convalescence didn’t last much beyond his landfall at Ostend. When he finally reached the port, he celebrated his new freedom by seducing the chambermaid of his hotel room as soon as he had checked in.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron.

BOOK: A Female Genius: How Ada Lovelace Started the Computer Age
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