Friday, April 30, 2010
Nineteenth Century Heroines: Above Calculation
We talked about Lord Byron, the famous poet, during our “Bad Boys” series a while back. He sired one legitimate daughter, Augusta Ada Byron, who could have ended up just as tormented as her father, but instead turned out to be a true nineteenth century heroine.
Ada grew up knowing OF her father (he was one of the most noted figures of the time, after all), but not knowing him. Her mother had separated from Bryon in January 1816, scarce a month after Ada was born. He left England not long after and died in Europe when Ada was nine. Her mother was determined that no taint of what she considered her husband’s madness should touch Ada, so she insisted that Ada be schooled in something foreign to poetry and fine literature: mathematics and science.
Ada had the best private tutors. Her mother had been the favorite student of William Frend, the social reformer educated at Cambridge, who taught her astronomy, algebra, Latin, and geometry. She made sure Ada had a similar education. Unfortunately, Ada was ill much of her childhood. By the time she was eight, she had developed terrible headaches. At 14, she caught the measles and had to stay in bed for nearly a year. Afterward, she had to walk crutches for awhile.
When Ada was 17, she met Mary Somerville, a Scottish mathematician who had had to struggle for the right to obtain her own education. They became great friends, and Mary encouraged Ada’s interest in mathematics. Through Mary, Ada was introduced to Charles Babbage at a dinner party. He had wild ideas of an Analytical Engine, a machine that would calculate the future. Though others at the party found the idea too far-fetched, but nineteen-year-old Ada was entranced.
So was Babbage. In Ada, he found an lifelong friend and pen pal. He was so impressed with her abilities in mathematics that he called her “The Enchantress of Numbers.”
But Society demanded a different life for Ada. At 20, she married a baron who became the first Earl of Lovelace and promptly set about filling the nursery, with three children in four years. Babbage, however, was also busy. He’d developed a plan for his Analytical Engine and presented it at a scientific gathering in Italy. Another scientist published a commentary on the idea in French. Babbage turned to Ada to translate it into English.
She translated it, all right, but she more than tripled the article by adding her own “notes,” suggestions for how the engine might work on something practical. She even developed an algorithm the engine might run. She felt the engine could be used for such things as composing music, drawing pictures, and conducting scientific investigations.
Ada died young, at 36 from uterine cancer. Today, Babbage’s Analytical Engine is recognized as the first computer, and Ada is given the title of the first computer programmer. March 24 is Augusta Ada Lovelace day, an international day of blogging in memory of the woman who helped pioneer the sciences and technology that drew the world through the industrial revolution and into the future.