Ada Lovelace: Victorian computing visionary

This updated chapter is from the second edition of our women in STEM anthology, A Passion For Science: Tales of Discovery and Invention, available as an ebook for £1.99 from Amazon.

by Suw Charman-Anderson

The idea that the 1840s saw the birth of computer science as we know it today may seem like a preposterous one, but long before the Bombe, the Colossus or the Harvard Mark I — long before any computer was actually built — came a remarkable woman whose understanding of computing remained unparalleled and unappreciated for 100 years. Brought up in an era when women were routinely denied education, she saw further into the future than any of her male counterparts, and her work influenced the thinking of one of World War II’s greatest minds.

Born The Honourable Augusta Ada Byron, the woman we now call Ada Lovelace began her life in a turbulent household. She was the only legitimate daughter of the romantic poet George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron and Anne Isabella Milbanke, 11th Baroness Wentworth, or Annabella as she was known. We’re all our father’s and mother’s sons and daughters, and Ada was no exception.

The very good girl determined to save the very bad man

Annabella was was articulate, perceptive and unafraid to speak her mind. An incredibly intelligent woman, she was educated by former Cambridge University professors in classical literature, philosophy, science and, her particular favourite, maths. Her parents, Sir Ralph Milbanke and the Honourable Judith Milbanke, had married for love and brought her up themselves, creating a tightly-knit family that must have influenced Annabella’s expectations for her own future.

George, on the other hand, was the son of Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron and the heiress Catherine Gordon, whose fortune Mad Jack frittered away until his early death at the age of 35. Born into a troubled family, trouble didn’t pass young George by. As a child he was bullied at school because of his disability: one leg was shorter than the other, resulting in a limp that he could never completely hide. As an adult he was volatile, hot-headed and debt-ridden, displaying what his mother described as a “reckless disregard for money”.

When the first two editions of his epic poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, sold out, Byron became massively famous. Everyone wanted a piece of this handsome, charming, moody celebrity with the withered foot and sharp tongue. Everyone, that is, except Annabella.

The two met in March 1812 at a party held by Annabella’s cousin, Lady Caroline Lamb, who herself was smitten with Byron and did not bother to hide it, despite being already married. The two had a brief affair, and it was Caroline who described the brooding poet as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.

Initially, Annabella had no romantic interest in Byron, and promised herself and her parents that they would only ever be friends. But despite herself, she became, in biographer Julia Markus’ words, “the very good girl determined to save the very bad man.”

With the love-lorn Caroline behaving more and more scandalously, her mother, Lady Melbourne, began meddling. If only she could get Byron married off to Annabella, that might solve a few problems! Eventually, after much tinkering by Lady Melbourne, Byron made and Annabella accepted a promise of marriage.

The fulfilment of that promise was, however, continually delayed and bookmakers even took bets on whether the wedding would actually happen. Finally it did, in January 1815, at Annabella’s family home in Seaham. Byron arrived several days late and his close friend John Hobhouse commented that “never was a lover in less haste.”

The marriage was an unhappy one. Byron had long since been having an affair with his half-sister, Augusta, by whom he had a daughter, Medora. Rather than keep this a secret from his new wife, he flaunted it, taking her to stay with Augusta and barely bothering to conceal the nature of their relationship.

Byron was erratic, to say the least, flying into a rage at the least provocation. He always had two pistols and a dagger with him, so when he threatened to murder Annabella or to kill himself, he was terrifyingly credible. He was moody, took laudanum – indeed, he carried a vial of the narcotic with him everywhere – and drank too much.

On 10 December 1815, Lady Byron gave birth to their daughter, Augusta Ada Byron. A month later, Byron told Annabella that he was having an affair with a London chorus girl called Susan Boyce and, a few days after that, he told Annabella to leave. Reluctantly, on the morning of 15 January, Lady Byron took Ada to her parents’ house in Kirkby Mallory.

Ada never saw her father again; he died when she was eight years old.

The legal separation of a married couple was difficult to secure in the early 19th century. Annabella was repeatedly advised to say nothing to or about Byron, because any hint of warmth towards him would be seen as “condonation” of his abuse, invalidating the separation and potentially handing legal charge of Ada to Byron.

The split was acrimonious. Byron held all the cards and it was he who defined the public narrative, unsympathetic and bitter. Even reviewers of his poetry couldn’t resist getting a few potshots in, demonising Annabella as a cold, heartless woman and Byron as the devoted but misunderstood genius-father.

Lady Byron was, in reality, far from being an ice maiden. She had a warm, captivating personality and was “one of the most excellent beings in the world”, as author Anna Jameson said. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author and slavery abolitionist, wrote about a then 61 year old Annabella: “the sweetness of her smile, and a certain very delicate sense of humour in her remarks, made the way of acquaintance easy.”

Even in her old age, years after Byron’s death, Annabella remained publicly silent in the face of a barrage of criticism and cruelty from his biographers and fans. This distorted view of Lady Byron later spilled over into unsympathetic accounts of her daughter’s life and achievements and is visible in many of Ada’s biographies. Lovelace’s story is so often printed on paper made from her parents’ dirty laundry.

Indeed, I owe an apology to Lady Byron – I myself have fallen for Byron’s propaganda and only understood my mistake in full when I read Julia Markus’ Lady Byron and her Daughters. This revised chapter will, I hope, help to correct the record.

The real Lady Byron was a progressive who founded two schools based on principles of “cheerfulness” and collaboration, eschewing the period fondness for corporal punishment and humiliation. She was a philanthropist who supported the middle and working classes, union members, religious dissenters, and fugitive slaves. She was a woman worthy of our respect and admiration.

Young Ada

As many single mothers would now, Lady Byron depended a lot on her mother, Judith, to help raise Ada. Parenting styles were certainly different in the early 19th century, with governesses and tutors commonly taking on roles we now expect to be filled by parents and school teachers. School, however, wasn’t an option for Ada. She was educated at home, alone, as were many other aristocratic children, but her mother ensured that she had the very best tutors available.

After Judith died, when Ada was six, the young girl was looked after by a series of nannies, not all of whom could cope with her boisterousness. When she was 10, she travelled with her mother to the Continent on a trip that lasted 15 months. On their return to England, Lady Byron fell ill and went away for treatment, leaving Ada with her new governess, Miss Stamp. Although Miss Stamp was a keen favourite of Ada’s, the girl missed her mother, and perhaps this was why she poured so much time and effort into designing a flying machine.

Ada loved machines. She spent hours poring over diagrams of new inventions and eagerly devouring any new periodical journals she could get her hands on. She began to think about how she would design a steam-powered flying machine, studying the anatomy of birds to help her understand the mechanics of flight. She realised that the wings would need to be in proportion to the size of the body, where the steam engine would be located to provide power. Her design preceded the aerial steam carriage, patented by William Henson and John Stringfellow in 1842, by 15 years. Ada was just 12.

This unusual preoccupation was encouraged by Lady Byron, although not at the expense of her other studies, who ensured that Ada was taught by some of the very finest minds in England. Having enjoyed a first class education herself, Lady Byron was determined that Ada should have the same, arranging for a series of teachers to give her a solid grounding in science and mathematics.

Lady Byron’s motivation wasn’t entirely focused on expanding Ada’s mind, however: she was terrified that Ada might have inherited her father’s madness. Hopefully the close study of mathematics and science would instil some mental discipline and drive out any demons that might otherwise plague Ada. Although she didn’t stop Ada reading her father’s poetry, Lady Byron was relieved to find that her daughter had no real interest in it.

In later life, Ada herself said that her study of mathematics helped with the mental instabilities that she does indeed seem to have inherited from her father. She wrote to her husband that “nothing but a very close and intense application to subjects of a scientific nature now seems at all to keep my imagination from running wild, or to stop the void which seems to be left in my mind.” However, Ada also wrote to Sophia de Morgan, the wife of her tutor, Augustus de Morgan, that she had determined that “too much mathematics” had caused her to have a breakdown, so her internal jury was obviously out on maths’ effectiveness for the control of her mental problems.

Augustus De Morgan was a mathematician at the forefront of the emerging field of symbolic logic, and he encouraged Ada to further study mathematics, as she had impressed him mightily with her capabilities. Had Ada been a man, he said, she would have had the potential to become “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence”.

But De Morgan worried that her focus on maths was damaging her health. Ada had been a sickly child, suffering headaches that affected her vision from around age eight. Then in 1829, when she was 13, she caught the measles which left her paralysed and confined to bed for a year. She did recover, but it was a slow, arduous journey to the point where, in 1831, she could walk again, on crutches.

De Morgan worried that her health would suffer further if she studied too hard. He said of her maths problems that, “the very great tension of mind which they require is beyond the strength of a woman’s physical power of application.”

But Ada did apply herself and she did conquer her maths problems.

Another of Ada’s tutors was Mary Somerville, the Scottish astronomer and mathematician. Mary had become famous in 1831 when she published The Mechanism of the Heavens, a translation of the five volume Mécanique Céleste by Pierre-Simon Laplace. Her translation was published by the wonderfully named Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and soon Somerville was a household name, yet she was a modest woman who said only that she had “translated Laplace’s work from algebra into common language”.

In 1833 Mary introduced Ada to another mathematician, Charles Babbage. Ada was 17 and Babbage was 42. It was a friendship that would change Ada’s life.

Big tables of numbers

Charles Babbage was an inventor and mechanical engineer; given Ada’s fascination for machines, it was only natural that the two become fast friends. Ada was captivated by Babbage’s inventions, and he was impressed by her intellect, analytical skills and mathematical ability.

Babbage was working on a mechanical adding machine that he called the Difference Engine. At the time, any maths that required logarithmic or trigonometric functions forced the mathematician to refer to large tables of numbers that had been worked out by hand. Unfortunately, these tables were prone to error and if an incorrect value was used in the calculations the mathematician’s result would also be incorrect. It was Babbage’s mission to use the Difference Engine to calculate these tables flawlessly.

The British Government was most interested in such a machine — or rather they were most interested in error-free log and trig tables that could be relied upon to give the correct answer. They invested some £17,000 — now equivalent to about £1.7 million — in the Difference Engine, hoping that Babbage would build it and start producing these vital tables.

Babbage, however, had other ideas. He gave up on the Difference Engine before it was finished and started work on a more complex machine, the Analytical Engine. The British Government was unimpressed and refused to fund Babbage’s new project, much to his disgust. It seems Babbage never quite grasped the idea that his funding was dependent on the production of those perfect tables of numbers, tables which never came to exist. Had he delivered, perhaps he would have found it easier to continue raising money.

The Analytical Engine was, however, a major leap forward, so it’s easy to understand why Babbage might have abandoned the Difference Engine in the light of this new, more powerful machine. It was a general purpose computing machine that had all the elements of a modern computer, including an arithmetical unit, conditional branching and loops, and integrated memory.

It could also be programmed to do complex computations using punched cards, just like the Jacquard loom and the early modern computers built in the 1940s, such as the Harvard Mark I. Babbage even designed a printer to go with it.

But, like its predecessor, the Analytical Engine was never built. In fact, Babbage never quite finished the design, tinkering with it throughout his life.

Marriage and family life

On 8 July 1835, aged just 19, Ada married William King the 8th Baron King. King was ten years her senior, and a man of good standing and honour. It seems that, like her parents, Ada and William married for love, but not before her mother had insisted that she reveal a secret which could have ruined the relationship.

Lovelace was an unconventional woman, fiercely intelligent and independent. She also found it very easy to strike up friendships and often found herself the object of men’s affections. A few years previously, she had had an affair with a tutor, with whom she had attempted to elope. But his relatives had recognised her — she was a well-known society figure because of her father and station — and her mother had covered up the scandal. But King forgave her and, in doing so, gained not just a wife but also a doting mother-in-law, to whom he became very close.

Over the next four years, the couple had three children: Byron, born May 1836; Anne Isabella, born September 1837; and Ralph Gordon, born July 1839. After the birth of Anne Isabelle, also called Annabella like her grandmother, Ada fell ill again for several months.

In 1838, King was made 1st Earl of Lovelace, and Ada became the Right Honourable the Countess of Lovelace. In correspondence she signed herself Augusta Ada Lovelace, or AAL, and we know her today simply as Ada Lovelace.

The Menabrea paper

Lovelace and Babbage’s friendship flourished and she studied his plans for the Analytical Engine in depth, becoming an expert on its workings. Lovelace was lucky to have married a man willing to support her work and ambitions, something King did more than many men would have at the time.

In 1842, Babbage gave a lecture about the Analytical Engine at the University of Turin. In the audience was an Italian engineer, Luigi Menabrea, whose notes were eventually published in the Bibliothèque Universelle de Genève. Babbage’s friend Charles Wheatstone then asked Lovelace to translate the paper into English from the original French, as she was fluent. That winter, Lovelace set to work. Her knowledge of the machine was far deeper than Menabrea’s, so she quietly corrected any errors she came across as she went along.

In 1843, Lovelace showed her translation to Babbage, who was delighted and asked her to expand on the original, “as she understood the machine so well”. Lovelace added footnotes, each labelled with a letter, and when she was done she had tripled the original paper’s length.

In these notes, Lovelace outlines several early computer programmes including, at Babbage’s suggestions, one to calculate Bernoulli Numbers, a complex numerical system first described by the Swiss mathematician Jakob Bernoulli, who died in 1705. There was nothing particularly special about Bernoulli Numbers – she could have chosen any complex series – the point of the exercise was not to find out what the Bernoulli Numbers were, but to show that they could be calculated by the machine, on its own, from first principles.

Note G described how to break down the algebra into simple formulae which could be calculated using the basic mathematical instructions that the Analytical Engine could process: addition, subtraction, multiplication or division. It then described how to code those formulae as instructions for the Analytical Engine.

Although there were earlier sketches for programs that had been prepared by Babbage, Lovelace’s were the most elaborate and complete, and they were the first to be published. It is for this achievement that Lovelace is known as the first computer programmer: She was the first person to write and publish a full set of instructions that a computing device could use to reach an end result that had not been calculated in advance.

A bigger vision

Lovelace’s understanding of Babbage’s Analytical Engine was so deep that in some ways it surpassed that of Babbage himself. She looked beyond those huge tables of perfect numbers that Babbage wanted the machine to calculate and saw its full potential.

If the Analytical Engine could manipulate numbers, she realised, it could also manipulate symbols. Symbolic logic underpins modern computer programming, but then it was an emerging field, and Lovelace’s friend and teacher De Morgan was at its forefront. Symbolic logic would allow the Analytical Engine to take on some very complex tasks, processing an algorithm and producing an answer that had not been pre-programmed into it.

Lovelace had herself written, “I want to put in something about Bernoulli’s Number, in one of my Notes, as an example of how an explicit function may be worked out by the engine, without having been worked out by human head and hands first.”

At the time, machines such as the automata, which mimicked humans and animals using clockwork, were well known at court. In the middle of the 18th century, Frenchman Pierre Jaquet-Droz had masterminded the creation of three automata: the Musician, the Draughtsman and the Writer. All three, which still exist and still work, can carry out the tasks for which they are named, but in a limited way. A complex series of cams — shaped, rotating disks — control the automata, allowing them to act out a pre-determined series of movements which results in music, drawings and writing. Lovelace would have at the very least seen the Silver Lady, a female automaton which could “bow and put up her eyeglass at intervals, as if to passing acquaintances” which Babbage had bought.

This is conjecture, but perhaps Lovelace was keen to stress that the Analytical Engine produced results without human interference not just to draw a distinction between it and the earlier Difference Engine, but also automata. The Difference Engine had never been built, but automata were a relatively common court spectacle and might have been the first point of comparison for people unfamiliar with Babbage’s work. Whatever her motivation, Lovelace was right: The Analytical Engine really was in a league of its own.

“The bounds of arithmetic were however outstepped the moment the idea of applying the cards had occurred;” she wrote, “and the Analytical Engine does not occupy common ground with mere ‘calculating machines.’ It holds a position wholly its own; and the considerations it suggests are most interesting in their nature. In enabling mechanism to combine together general symbols in successions of unlimited variety and extent, a uniting link is established between the operations of matter and the abstract mental processes of the most abstract branch of mathematical science.”

Of course, neither Lovelace nor Babbage had the benefit of our modern terminology, and Lovelace had to define her concepts carefully so that her intent remained clear. For example:

“It may be desirable to explain, that by the word operation, we mean any process which alters the mutual relation of two or more things, be this relation of what kind it may. This is the most general definition, and would include all subjects in the universe.”

This idea of a general purpose computer, more than Note G, was the groundbreaking one. It is clear from Lovelace’s notes that this was not just a random flight of fancy, it was a concept she had thought hard about and she had a solid grasp on the theory behind it. She suggests that such a machine could potentially compose music, writing:

“[The Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine. Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”

And it’s not just music that might be so susceptible. Inspired by the images woven into rich brocades, Lovelace also suggests that Babbage’s machine might be capable of creating graphics. The Analytical Engine, she wrote, “weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.”

The concept of a general computer that could do anything, given the right programming and inputs, was an extraordinary leap for Lovelace to make and one that many of her male peers struggled to understand. It is no exaggeration to say that she was 100 years ahead of her time.


Even after Lovelace had made this huge conceptual leap, essentially describing much of what we consider fundamental to modern computer science, she continued to expand on the education her mother had arranged for her. Her personality and desire for knowledge is nowhere epitomised more than in a letter she wrote to Michael Faraday.

Faraday, one of the most influential scientists in history especially in the field of electricity, was a devout Christian and a Sandemanian, a denomination of the Church of Scotland. He was a humble but self-disciplined man, as well as an eloquent and passionate public speaker.

Ada was keen to become his pupil. In fact, ‘keen’ might have been an understatement. She was, in modern terms, a bit of a fangirl, saying in a letter to him that she “entertain[ed] an esteem little short of reverence” for him. In another letter, dated 1844 — thus making her 28 at the time and him 53 — she wrote (emphasis as per original):

Dear Mr Faraday,

I am exceedingly tickled with your comparison of yourself to a tortoise. It has excited all my fun (& I assure you I have no little of that in me).

I am also struck with the forcible truth of your designation of my character of mind:

elasticity of intellect“.

It is indeed the very truth, most happily put into language.

You have excited in my mind a ridiculous, but not ungraceful, allegorical picture, viz:

that of a quiet demure plodding tortoise, with a beautiful fairy gambolling round it in a thousand radiant & varying hues; the tortoise crying out, “Fairy, fairy, I am not like you. I cannot at pleasure assume a thousand aerial shapes & expand myself over the face of the universe. Fairy, fairy, have mercy on me, & remember I am but a tortoise.

Babbage, for his part, tried to put in a good word for Lovelace with Faraday, calling her the “Enchanted Maths Fairy”, and writing:

My dear Faraday,

I am not quite sure whether I thanked you for a kind note imputing to me unmeritedly the merit of a present you received I conjecture from Lady Lovelace.

I now send you what out to have accompanied that Translation.

So you will now have to write another note so that 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 remember well your first interview with the youthfull fairy which she herself has not forgotten and I am gratefull to you both for making my drawings rooms the Chateau D’Eu of Science.

No amount of fairies or enchantresses could change Faraday’s mind, however, and he never did acquiesce to her request to tutor her.

Early to rise, early to bed

Lovelace’s brilliance had become obvious very early on in her life but, however strong the powers of her mind, she couldn’t prevent her body’s frailty from betraying her. She had suffered and recovered from cholera, but now she developed uterine cancer, an illness from which she would never recover.

Lady Byron sat constantly beside Lovelace’s bed as her condition deteriorated. And here, again, we see the shadows of Byron propaganda in the account of Ada’s suffering and death. Writes Markus:

For a short time in June, Lady Byron took Ada off pain medications, for which her later detractors demonized her, suggesting Ada was allowed to suffer through the course of her illness for the good of her soul. In fact, Ada was given opiates, belladonna; cannabis was discussed as a possibility; and finally it arrived—the water bed.

Whilst free of medication, Lovelace was able for a while to talk lucidly to her mother. But she was in constant pain, despite the care she had from physicians and her family. Lady Byron spent every day with her daughter, supporting her however she could, spiritually as well as physically. Lovelace had been, by some accounts, a materialist and later an atheist, whereas both her mother and her husband, unsurprisingly, were Christians. Markus, again:

Twentieth-century critics of Lady Byron emphasize ‘Christian influences’ as if mother spent her time sermonizing a dying daughter. Far from it. Ada wished to make her peace with her maker before she died, a common desire in the nineteenth century, and in doing so her mother was a help. However, neither was doctrinaire. Ada was a Unitarian, and Christianity to Lady Byron was following he who did good. Lady Byron’s ‘everlasting cheering’ did reflect Ada’s hope of redemption.

Ada died on 27 November 1852 at just 36 years old, the same age as her father.

Although Lady Byron had forbidden Lovelace from seeing a portrait of Byron until she was 20, Ada had come to know him, as much as she could given that she had been so young when he died. She had read his poetry, though she cared little for it, saying “I shall be a better analyst [mathematician] than my father ever was a poet!”

Yet, the older Lovelace got, the more she identified with her father, writing once that she understood his impulses as she too hated any kind of restraint. In the end, she chose to be buried next to him at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottingham.

A computing legacy

It’s fair to say that Babbage’s Analytical Engine was a computing evolutionary cul-de-sac. It was never built. Lovelace never had the opportunity to test her program on it, she never got to find and squash any bugs, to iterate and improve her understanding of how software worked. And Babbage never produced those large, error-free tables of numbers that the British Government so desired.

But Lovelace’s ideas found their way into modern computing via Alan Turing. During WWII, as he was working at Bletchley Park on decoding German communications, Turing discovered Lovelace’s Menabrea translation and its attendant notes. They were critical documents that helped to shape his thinking.

Indeed, in his seminal paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence Turing explored the question “Can machines think?”, promptly launching the field of artificial intelligence. He also listed “contrary views” on his position that machines could at least imitate thinking, and discusses what he calls Lady Lovelace’s Objection.

Lovelace had written, “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform”, which might be taken to mean that her position was that machines could not learn, or create anything original. However, Turing points out that “the evidence available to Lady Lovelace did not encourage her to believe” that machines could be so capable.

He goes on to say, “The Analytical Engine was a universal digital computer, so that, if its storage capacity and speed were adequate, it could by suitable programming be made to mimic the machine in question. Probably this argument did not occur to the Countess or to Babbage. In any case there was no obligation on them to claim all that could be claimed.”

Turing, of course, was working a century after Lovelace and benefiting not just from all of the technological developments and scientific advances that had occurred in that time, but also from the different culture that he inhabited.

Lovelace’s culture, remember, still hadn’t developed a concept of machine much beyond the automaton, the clockwork ensemble that mimicked life, but could never create new behaviour. The Writer could write only what it was told to write. The Analytical Engine, on the other hand, could produce an answer that it had worked out for itself based on its inputs and programming.

It is reasonable to argue, however, that it was not just that Lovelace had seen no evidence that machines could act as originators, but that those machines which had appeared to act thus had been frauds. One automaton, in particular, had appeared capable of replicating human thought: The Mechanical Turk was a machine that could not only play chess, but could also reliably win against grandmasters. It toured Europe from 1770 until 1854 and won nearly every match it played. The Mechanical Turk even won a match with Babbage, who said that he was sure it was a trick, but he couldn’t see how.

About a decade or so before Lovelace published her translation and notes on the Analytical Engine, the Turk was exposed as a hoax. It was not, in fact, an automaton at all, but a machine driven by a human sitting, probably very uncomfortably, in the box at its base. One can’t help but wonder if Lovelace’s assertion that the Analytical Engine could not originate was as much based on a desire to differentiate it from automata, real or hoaxed, as a belief that it was not possible.

Modern objections

Like many women who have contributed greatly to the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths through the centuries, Lovelace’s achievements have often been either downplayed or rejected by modern voices. There are two main objections. Firstly, it is said that Lovelace didn’t understand calculus and thus, the logic goes, could not have had the capacity to prepare the Bernoulli program.

It is true that Lovelace struggled with calculus. She wrote to De Morgan in some frustration about the chapter on “notation of functions” that she was studying.

“I do not know when I have been so tantalised by anything,” she said, “and should be ashamed to say how much time I have spent up on it, in vain. These functional equations are complete will-o’-the-wisps to me. The moment I fancy I have really at last got hold of something tangible and substantial, it all recedes further and further & vanishes again into thin air.”

But calculus caused a lot of trouble for even seasoned mathematicians. Charles Dodgson, better known as the author Lewis Carroll, studied maths for four years at Oxford University, came top of his class and went on to lecture maths there. Dodgson said of the subject, “Talked over the Calculus of Variations with Price today; I see no prospect of understanding the subject at all.”

It feels a little harsh to criticise Lovelace for finding calculus tricky when Dodgson, who had the benefit of a formal education at one of the best universities in the world, also found it problematic. Indeed, biographer Dr Betty Alexandra Toole, author of Ada: the Enchantress of Numbers, told me that she showed the De Morgan correspondence to the late Dr Steven Deliberto, then Vice Chairman of the Mathematics department at Berkeley, who stated that Ada was studying what was then considered the forefront of calculus. The fact that we teach calculus at school now should not influence our assessment of the position and understanding of calculus in the 19th century.

A second, and potentially more damning, objection to calling Lovelace the first computer programmer comes from the idea that she did not actually write the Bernoulli program. This is a theory that has been put forward by historians, and even by some of her biographers.

Historian Bruce Collier wrote in his 1990 book, The Little Engine That Could’ve:

It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that Babbage wrote the Notes to Menabrea’s paper, but for reasons of his own encouraged the illusion in the minds of Ada and the public that they were authored by her. 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, [correspondence between Ada and Babbage] seems to make obvious once again that Ada was as mad as a hatter, and contributed little more to the Notes than trouble.

Collier isn’t alone in his assertion. Allan G Bromley and Doron Swade both claimed that Babbage did the work in the years before the 1842 publication of Lovelace’s translation. Benjamin Woolley says that Lovelace made just “some contribution”.

It may be that the confusion, which we’ll generously call it, comes from Babbage’s own autobiography which he wrote when he was nearly 80. In it, he said (emphasis mine):

The elementary principles on which the Analytical Engine rests were thus in the first instance brought before the public by General Menabrea.

Some time after the appearance of his memoir on the subject in the “Bibliothèque Universelle de Genève,” the late Countess of Lovelace informed me that she had translated the memoir of Menabrea. I asked why she had not herself written an original paper on a subject with which she was so intimately acquainted? To this Lady Lovelace replied that the thought had not occurred to her. I then suggested that she should add some notes to Menabrea’s memoir; an idea which was immediately adopted.

We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced: I suggested several, but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process.

The notes of the Countess of Lovelace extend to about three times the length of the original memoir. Their author has entered fully into almost all the very difficult and abstract questions connected with the subject.

We have to ask what Babbage meant by “algebraic working out”. The Bernoulli note is made of up equations, and a table and diagram which describes how the punch cards should be prepared for the programming of the Engine. It is the table and diagram that are the program, not the equations. So even though Babbage worked on the equations — and he did so to save Lovelace time, not because she couldn’t do them herself. Indeed, if she had not capability to understand the equations, how could she have detected his “grave mistake”?

Their correspondence illuminates the matter further. Having sent Note G to Babbage for his feedback, Lovelace was disappointed to discover that either he, or possibly the printer, had lost it. She would have to start over again. She wrote to Babbage, “I suppose I must set to work to write something better, if I can, as a substitute, the same precisely I could not recall. I think I should be able in a couple of days to do something. However I should be deucedly inclined to swear at you, I will allow.”

Babbage responded to the new version, “I like very much the improved form of the Bernoulli Note but can judge of it better when I have the Diagram and Notation.”

It would have been a most peculiar exchange were the assertion that Babbage wrote the program true. Who would say that they would be able to judge something better once they’d been given more information by someone else if they had written it themselves?

The truth is that Babbage and Lovelace collaborated closely, discussing and refining their ideas, Babbage working on some parts, Lovelace on others. Babbage was living in London and Lovelace an hour away in Ockham Park, and letters flew back and forth between them in a great flurry. The post in Victorian England was delivered several times a day and, if they couldn’t wait, they both had personal messengers that they could rely on.

The letters were sometimes quite terse, rather like modern email. One from Babbage simply says, “Return sheet with two corrections. Right about Card requiring new Variable.”

Lovelace often worked 18 hours days, refining her notes, asking Babbage to clarify a point or send over a diagram, a request that he couldn’t always meet as the design was constantly in flux and sometimes the drawings he had to hand were out of date.

Eventually, translation and notes were done and, in August 1843, they were published inTaylor’s Scientific Memoirs, to great acclaim. Menabrea asked Babbage to pass on his congratulations to Lovelace, and Faraday told Babbage that the paper was so complex that it went right over his head.

Lovelace and Babbage worked as a team, and as with many teams there is no definitive documentation to explain exactly who did what. But the evidence that we do have supports the idea that Lovelace was instrumental in the development of the Bernoulli program, and that it was not the work of Babbage alone.

The perfect figurehead for women in STEM

In 2009, when Ada Lovelace was first suggested to me as a figurehead for a day celebrating the achievements of women in technology, she seemed like a great choice. Here was the first ever computer programmer. Not the first woman; the first person. How perfect!

It was only as I discovered more about her story and especially the way in which many modern voices, even including some of her biographers, have downplayed or denied her achievements that I realised what an appropriate choice I had made. Although much has changed in the last two hundred years, many women still find that their contributions to our understanding of the world are either ignored or the accolades go to their male colleagues.

Were Lovelace alive today, I think she would recognise the problems faced by her female peers. But she’d also recognise our modern computing machines as the very embodiment of her ideas, and she’d immediately set about learning how they worked and how to program them. She didn’t let the conventions of her day slow her down, and she certainly wouldn’t let modern prejudices get in the way either.

Further reading

Toole, B (2010), Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers: Poetical Science, Sausalito: Critical Connection.

Markus, J (2015), Lady Byron and her Daughters, WW Norton & Company.

Isaacson, W (2014), The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, Simon & Schuster.

Fuegi, J, Francis, J, “Lovelace & Babbage and the creation of the 1843 ‘notes'”, Annals of the History of Computing, IEEE, vol.25, no.4, pp.16-26, Oct.-Dec. 2003.

Padua, S, “Lovelace and Babbage — Period Documents”,

About the author

Suw Charman-Anderson is the founder of Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths, which she now works on full time.

She was previously a social technologist and, as one of the UK’s social media pioneers, has helped clients worldwide use social tools for collaboration and communication internally and to build customer relationships externally. As a freelance journalist, Suw has written about social media and technology for The Guardian, CIO Magazine, .Net Magazine, Computer Weekly, and

In 2005, Suw co-founded the Open Rights Group with the aim of raising awareness of digital rights issues and campaigning against bad legislation in Britain and the EU.


Twitter: @suw

Find out about more women in STEM in A Passion For Science: Tales of Discovery and Invention and More Passion for Science: Journeys into the Unknown, both ebooks just £1.99 on Amazon.