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Painting of Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace, the "Lady Fairy" and Lord Byron’s Prodigious Daughter


The story of Ada Lovelace is not only extraordinary, it is also essential to understand the period we live in.

Ada Lovelace was born during the short marriage of Lord Byron and Anne Isabelle Milbank (also known as the “princess of parallelograms”), who, to keep her daughter away from her father’s poetic influence, left Byron just a month after Ada was born. Ada never knew her father, but she undoubtedly held conversations with him through the strange and fascinating places of her imagination. Lady Byron made sure Ada received proper lessons in mathematics and music, disciplines which she considered would counteract Byron’s dangerous poetic tendencies. She never imagined that mathematics would give her daughter the immense poetic faculty of algorithms and machines.

At the age of twelve, Ada wanted to fly. She approached the problem methodically: examined birds and researched materials that could be used as wings: feathers, paper and silk. Throughout her research she wrote an illustrated guide called “Flyology”, which her mother would then repress because its nature was whimsical and not rational. Sometime afterwards, Lovelace would reconcile her parents’ polar opposites by asking herself a question of the utmost importance: what is imagination? Two things, she thought: “the combining faculty” which “seizes points in common, between subjects having no apparent connection,” and “Imagination” which “is the Discovering Faculty, pre-eminently.” Naturally, from that point onwards, these were the answers that would take her on a journey through the (poetic) land of science.

Painting of Ada Lovelace

Ada is now known as the first computer programmer. In 1843, due to her friendship with the mathematician Charles Babbage, who invented the Difference Engine and developed the theory behind the Analytical Machine, Ada (who was known as the ‘enchantress of numbers’) embarked on an immense investigation on the development and tabulation of algorithms to create all sorts of functions. She wrote what is essentially a software program: a description of how the Analytic Machine could be programmed by using pierced cards that calculated Bernoulli numbers, a complex number succession. She understood that if the machine had enough algorithms, it could be used to create music or art. This is a fundamental moment for the history of programming; Ada expanded the function of the Machine towards artistic results, while Babbage, the visionary, was mainly concerned with pure numeric tables. Mrs Lovelace’s notes anticipated future developments, including music generated by computers.

At the end of the 1970s, the American Department of Defence developed a software language called Ada, which gathered a number of different software languages. This was a perfect attribution for Lovelace, considering she was a woman who rode horses, played the harp and studied poetry; meaning, she was able to match apparently different elements with a numeric language (what is imagination?). The language of programming, as we know it, is precisely that: it includes a finite number of combinations and interactions with itself and the rest of the world. Mrs Lovelace drove this invention towards the endeavours of computing. And for this reason, Babbage called her “Lady Fairy”.

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