Sunday, December 10, 2006


Ada Byron -- born on this day in 1815 in Piccadilly Terrace, Middlesex -- was the daughter of poet Lord Byron and his wife Annabella. Shortly after Ada was born, however, Annabella had had enough of the poet's excesses and threw him out. Byron, who left England for the rest of his relatively short life, never knew his daughter, but pined after her -- at least mimetically -- in his lines from Child Harolde: "'Is thy face like thy mother's, my fair child!/ Ada! sole daughter of my house and of my heart?/ When I last saw thy young blue eyes they smiled/ And then we parted -- not as now we part, but with a hope.'"

Ada's mother, knowing all too well Byron's capacity for b.s. and thus a little skeptical of her daughter's bloodlines, recommended an intensive course in mathematics for her daughter, unusual for a woman then sadly as now, to ward against the "heedlessness, imprudence, vanity, prevarication and conceit"she might otherwise inherit from the old man. When she was still a teen, while attending a women's literary meeting at the home of Mary Somerville, Ada first heard of Charles Babbage and his design for a calculating machine, the Difference Engine, which could be used to determine the polynomial equation for a table of data, and she was inspired by his notion that a machine might be made, not only to foresee, but to conduct some activity based on that foresight.

She put her inspiration on hold temporarily, marrying Lord William King in 1835 and having 3 children, but she maintained her acquaintance with Babbage, and became fascinated by the possibilities of Babbage's new proposal for a more sophisticated calculating machine that could perform any kind of calculation, the Analytic Engine, understanding much more quickly than many of Babbage's male contemporaries how it could work and what it could do.

After Babbage delivered a talk on the Analytic Engine in Italy in 1841, Luigi Menabrea published a paper about the machine. Attempting to channel her passionate interest in Babbage's work into something meaningful, Ada translated Menabrea's paper from French into English, and at Babbage's suggestion, added her own extensive commentary. Published in 1843, Ada's translation was in fact almost a completely new book on Babbage's proposed machine, 3 times the length of Menabrea's article, in which she outlined the fundamental concepts by which the machine could be "programmed" to complete certain tasks (observing that a working Engine could "weave[ ]. . . algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves"), the main elements required in any mechanical "language" used to program the machine (including a discussion of the machine might be programmed to compute Bernoulli numbers, a discussion which some have cited as perhaps the ealiest articulation of a computer program), and her predicitions that such a machine might be used to compose music, produce drawings and handle other practical and scientific tasks.

The article was not simply the best description of the Analytic Engine and its capabilties to date, but a work of some vision, as unappreciated until the 20th century as Babbage's plans ultimately were by his contemporaries. After the article was published, the charming, vivacious countess of Lovelace (who also numbered David Brewster, Charles Dickens and Michael Faraday among her parlor guests) fell ill with uteran cancer, and treated herself with alcohol, opium and morphine, leading no doubt to the instability which inspired her to become, in her final days, a compulsive gambler (albeit a mathematically talented one) and going into debt before her death at age 36.

A Pascal-based software language developed by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1979 was named "ADA" in her honor, and Tilda Swinton played her in an unusual fantasy film, Conceiving Ada (1997).

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