Ada Lovelace: 'The Enchantress of Numbers' (+video)

Ada Lovelace was the visionary half of the team that helped create the modern computer. Lovelace is honored by Google as the 'first computer programmer.'

By , Staff Writer

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    Ada Lovelace (Mrs. Ada King) is honored by Google as a doodle on her 197th birthday.
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Ada Lovelace is honored today by Google for her contribution to computer science. She is variously described as the "first computer programmer" and the inventor of the algorithm.

But Ada Lovelace might have become an historical footnote – the only legitimate daughter of Romantic poet Lord Byron – were it not for her relationship with Charles Babbage, the "father of the computer."

Their work together illustrates the adage: "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts." Yes, Babbage conceived of the "Difference Engine" and the "Analytical Engine." But it was Ada that was able to see the wider applications, the potential beyond its use as a sophisticated calculator.

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Ada Lovelace met Babbage in 1833, when she was just 17. He was a professor of mathematics at Cambridge University. Her mother, in an attempt to steer her away from the "dangerous poetic tendencies" of her father, had her tutored in math and music. Her knack for math quickly became apparent.

She and Babbage began to meet regularly and correspond. She was fascinated with his Difference Engine and later the Analytical Engine. Moreover, she had the mathematical chops to understand how it worked – and the vision to see its potential.

Babbage described her as "the Enchantress of Numbers," according to Betty Alexandra Toole's biography.

"Forget this world and all its troubles and if possible
 its multitudinous Charlatans-- everything in short but
 the Enchantress of Numbers."

--Charles Babbage to Ada Lovelace

Ada was married to William King and had three children by him – two years after she first met Babbage. But Babbage and Ada continued to correspond. In 1842, Babbage turned to Ada when he needed someone to translate the work of mathematician Louis Menebrea, who published an article in French about Babbage's Analytical Engine.

Ada spent nine months translating it, and appending elaborate notes about the Analytical Engine to the article that were longer than the article itself. It was this set of notes that have earned Ada her place in the history of computing.

Her notes included a detailed description – a computer algorithm – of how to calculate a sequence of Bernouli numbers, using the Analytical Engine. The Engine, run by punch cards, became the basis for the design for the modern computer. But Babbage's Engine was never built in his lifetime.

Some historians have disputed Ada's contribution. That she was merely a student taking dictation, and occasionally catching Babbage's errors.

But her notes show that she saw something that Babbage didn't: the potential of the 'Engine,' what we would one day call a "computer" to change all facets of human life, including music.

"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."

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