Computer Science’s Wonder Woman: Ada Lovelace – Computerphile

Computer Science’s Wonder Woman: Ada Lovelace – Computerphile

Ada — Ada Byron as she initially was; Ada
Lovelace as she became. What was so special about her in terms of her
education, her genealogy if you like, her genetics? What was so special about her
that enabled her to do what she did? Well, this is not strictly computer
science but it’s a good story and it does have some marginal relevance to
all of this. Ada’s parents were George Gordon Byron
– he was born in 1788. I’ll put the first name of his wife in quotes. Actually she
was christened, I think as Anne Isabella, but she actually liked to
run the two together and elide them into “Annabella”. So that’s why I put quotes
around “Annabella Milbanke”. They got married in 1815 and you can work it out:
I mean … that would mean that Byron was 27; she was actually 23. And very shortly
after getting married they had a daughter and Byron chose the name Ada
for her. You know, short; to the point; poetical. Ada Byron born 10th December 1815.
She was the only legitimate daughter of these two. Now, I
can only apologize again and say I have to say something about, particularly, her father
because it explains so much about Ada and how she was educated the way she was.
Lord Byron was unbelievable. He was the [pre-] Victorian bad boy, par excellence. George
Gordon Byron was like an amalgam of Hunter S. Thompson, y’ know, Sean Penn,
Charlie Sheen, Keith Richards maybe, all of the bad boys. And had there been a gang,
of them, a ratpack, he would have been the leader, most definitely.
Indeed, one of his many, many girlfriends, for George Byron, was a lady
called Lady Caroline Lamb. Some of the oldies of my audience will have seen
the movie, starring Sarah Miles. And famously Lady Caroline Lamb
characterized him as being: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know.
[movie clip] >>William Lamb – later Lord Melbourne:
He [Byron] writes like a housemaid on the
verge of the vapours !>>Lady Caroline: He does not mean to write like
Alexander Pope ….
>>DFB: Lord Byron was famous at Cambridge for keeping a pet bear in his rooms and when he’d later
declared himself to be a poet, and he was a very good one, he went off to Italy to
see his poetical friends – and have them visit him. People like Shelley and Keats and stuff like
that. Shelley recounts that when he found Byron by the sea, in lodgings, the
staircase was occupied by six pet peacocks. It was this kind of excess – it
was sex drugs and rock’n’roll. Except no rock’n’roll in those days – so it was sex
drugs and poetry
>>Sean: If he’d had a Rolls-Royce it would have been in the swimming pool?
>>DFB: Oh! yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! Because he was like that. And because he left his
wife immediately – five weeks after Ada was born – and they’d only been married
earlier that year, that Annabella Milbanke thought he was the devil incarnate – had
no time for him – and was worried stiff that daughter Ada might grow up in the
image of her father. So, to try and head off trouble at the pass, it was decreed
that Ada’s education could cover things like non-fiction English literature, geography,
botany, mathematics, physics chemistry – nothing that involved the
emotions. The thing that was absolutely banned in her education was poetry. That
inflamed the passions! She might start taking after her father and then heaven
knows what would happen. So Ada, unusually for a woman of [good] breeding in
early Victorian era, had a very rational scientific upbringing. She had
mathematics tutors and, later on, actually in wanting to become an even better
mathematician she did ask … well she not only took up with Babbage as we
will find out, but she also asked for recommendations for other tutors. And one
of them is a person I think I have mentioned on Computerphile already: Augustus
De Morgan, who came up with the rules of the logical algebra, later known
as Boolean algebra. So, she had De Morgan of De Morgan’s Rules fame, as one of
her Maths tutors. And she was serious about becoming ever more devoted to
mathematics. Think about it: 1815 she was a society lady; she lived with her mother
and a large proportion of living with her Mum, during the year, would be in London
in rented lodgings. Her mother was reasonably well-off. She was a minor-league
sort of heiress in her own right. They could afford that OK.
But young ladies of [good] breeding – really up until about 1970, in the
society circuit, had a ceremony almost of what was called ‘coming out’. What
it meant was you were a ‘debutante’, you were a young lady in society who hadn’t
been formally introduced to the people who mattered in Society. So you had ‘coming
out balls’, in fashionable London, and these were attended by the Queen or the King. When you add 17 onto 1815 [when Ada
was born] – 1832 was Ada’s Coming-Out Ball, where she met the predecessor to Queen Victoria
who was King William IV, I think, at that time. But anyway, as part of this ‘coming out’
she met, at one of the events, a certain Charles Babbage and Charles Babbage
invited Ada and her mother, Annabella, to come and visit him at his
house, meet his wife, and to be shown this miracle of mechanical engineering and
mathematics. “Only part-constructed but we’re just awaiting more funds”. Difference
Engine Mk II. And Ada was completely captivated by this. She thought it was
wonderful and she and Babbage became, shall we say, “firm friends”, corresponding very
very regularly. They kept in touch. But in order to explain how it all came down, in
the end, to this Analytical Engine it goes roughly as follows. In the early 1830s,
aged still only 19, she corresponded a lot with Babbage about his Difference
Engine MK II, asks for recommendations for Maths tutors
and so on. [The] late 1830s were occupied by the fact that. in about 1835 I think,
Ada met another gentleman from high society called William King. Married him. They
fell for each other; whirlwind romance; mid-1830s. So the late 1830s
as you can imagine was spent on William King’s Somerset estates
in the process of being domestic and having three children. And fortunately
for Ada – very unusual in the Victorian era – they did all survive and she herself
did not die in childbirth – a minor miracle in those days. But by early 1840s
she’d had her three children – of course they were well enough off that they’d
be looked after by governesses, nursemaids and so on – she decided that she would
like to get back into mathematics. And it was at this late stage that Babbage,
without actually formally publishing it anywhere, had come up with the idea of
the Analytical Engine.
… keep it in the CPU, or if …>>DFB: Babbage, of course, would
have been the first programmer, in a sense, of his Analytical Engine. He’d have
come up with the design and he’d have done pencil and paper exercises about ” … with that
design will this actually work?”. But don’t forget the Analytical Engine was not
built, has not been built and will cause huge problems in being built.
However, the spec. could be obtained and it was very, very impressive indeed.
So, why didn’t Babbage publicize this more? Why did Ada and others have to find out almost by knowing him personally?
The answer is that Babbage was thin-skinned – think back to my story in early videos
about Newton and Gauss. They were thin-skinned, couldn’t stand criticism, couldn’t stand the
unwashed criticising their great thoughts.

>>DFB: But like Newton– he
hated publishing. If you published then the great unwashed would start telling ….
[end of clip]
>>DFB: The Boeotians I think it was called by Gauss. Same thing with Babbage he was so
thin-skinned he could not take criticism and worst of all he stopped
giving lectures, because people misunderstood them and, worse still, he got
heckled! So, it was no use asking Babbage to give a lecture to the Royal
Institution, or something, in London about his Analytical Engine – he was not going to do
that! However, he was invited to go to Italy and I think he was probably a
member of the Italian equivalent of the Royal Society. So we went over, by
invitation, in the late 1830s [correction: 1841] to give a talk on his Analytical Engine.
A person there called Luigi Menabrea, an engineer with a good maths background, who
later became Italian Prime Minister actually, took copious notes and wrote up a
paper, published in a French journal – not an Italian one, amazingly. Well, Ada got
to hear about this, got hold of a copy of it and decided that she could rework it
as translator, add a lot to it, do it better and explain it to an English
audience. So, this is where the whole issue comes of Ada as computer programmer. Yes she really, really DID understand
every nuance of Babbage’s design; she had to in explaining how this program worked.
In, no doubt, writing programs of her own. And I think what always impresses me
about Ada, when you read her copious notes at the end of this paper … beware it’s in
Victorian English. It is heavy going! She and Babbage and the rest of the Victorians
would never use 6 words where 36 would do. All sorts of subjunctive clauses – oh! it’s
hard work. Be warned! So anyway, in part of her end-notes
in this she lets her imagination run free and she says to
people: “Have you thought? Could this wonderful Engine of Babbage’s
compose music?” Now that really is good lateral thinking, because Sean and I have stood
there at Bletchley Park or sat there in front of my computer, here at Nottingham,
when we were doing the Ackermann function, and jokingly said to ourselves
“Ooh! it’s thinking!” when the result didn’t come out. And, somehow, that’s not too
difficult a thought to have when the thing is electronic and humming away. But
to have the thought of this crashing great Analytical Engine being driven by steam,
going bang! crash! bang! bang!. To think of that as a thinking machine does require a bigger
leap of imagination. So yes, she had glimpses of the future, there’s no
question about it. she really did.
>>Sean: Even more so if you think that
it’s actually just on paper at this stage …>>DFB: Oh yes!
>>Sean: … she’s seen some cogs from other
things he’s done but …>>DFB: Yes, later on, after her sort of tragic
death, Babbage when he wrote his own autobiography referred back constantly
to what he called his ‘Enchantress of Number’ i.e. Ada herself. And this wonderful paper. Oh!! and another lovely Babbage story – I love
this one! She consulted with him while she was writing this paper and he thought it was
wonderful but came up with the great idea, which you can guess!
“Wouldn’t it be a good idea, my dear, if as well as this paper I were to write an
anonymous preface to it and flame the establishment and the grant-givers for not
giving me enough money to actually build it ?!” And she knew him well enough by this time; she
adroitly avoided doing that. I mean Babbage’s idea that so long as it was
anonymous nobody would guess who wrote it, is just unbelievable.
Anyway that’s how it all ended because the trouble was – and the really tragic
thing for Ada was, as the 1840s wore on – her health got worse and worse and worse.
It’s now believed that she actually died of cervical cancer. I think she didn’t
actually die until 1852. By that time her mother had moved
in with her and her husband, William King Earl of Lovelace, on their Somerset estate.
But a week or two before Ada died ructions began all over again because
she called William King her husband, apparently, according to Stephen Wolfram’s
blog – and i believe this, he’s researched it well – and told William King
something that made him ” …very, very upset”. It has not been recorded what it is. She
insisted that when she died – and she knew death was inevitable – that she did not
want to be buried on the William King, Earl of Lovelace, estate in Somerset. She
wanted to be buried next to her father. And this, if you like, is where the local
bit comes in, for us here in Nottingham. Her father George Gordon, Lord
Byron, when he wasn’t being Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, had also actually
inherited from a very distant Byron cousin [correction: great-uncle] the whole
of the Newstead Abbey estate. Now Newstead
Abbey is a stately home just north of us here [in Nottingham] . Byron loved
inheriting this! Lord of the Manor; striding
around; sword in hand, y’ know, order the workers what
to do next … Be a man with a country estate and with
all my learning and my [good] breeding as well. Only trouble was – the fact is he was virtually bankrupt. He couldn’t remotely afford
to run the Newstead estate. What little money Byron had was spent on sex, drugs
peacocks and poetry. So it never really got off the ground. And I
think fairly shortly thereafter maybe even before Byron died in
1828 [correction: 1824] the
estate was sold and left the Byron family completely. But Newstead Abbey was
there and it brought with it, of course, the rights of the family grave.
Byron himself was buried in Hucknall Parish Church and Ada said – and upset her
husband and her Mum mightily – “I want to be buried next to my father in Hucknall Parish Church”.
Fortunately due to our friends and colleagues in Physics and “Sixty Symbols”,
we’re able to refer across because they paid a visit [in 2015] to Ada and her father’s
tomb in Hucknall Parish Church and have done a video on it.
>>Prof. Merrifield: … and up there
on the wall is the plaque, commemorating Ada Lovelace, vertical, she’s not buried up there.
She’s down here, in the family vault, or actually this is just the entrance to
the family vault ….
>>DFB: At the funeral – again it was a small affair – but really
telling was her mother did not attend, I think probably furious at her daughter’s
wish to be buried next to the hated husband, Lord Byron. Babbage was appointed
executor of Ada’s will, but he didn’t attend either. Read into that what you
will but I think one can certainly say that in the past – in Ada’s past – she was a
troubled soul in many ways – there were probably “goings-on” of various sorts, that
we can only speculate about. And yet – there’s no doubt about it –
I don’t want to under-play or over-play Ada but she was important.
She really was. She “got it”, in a sense, about software – and what software could
do. And I think she sort of could transcend the unbelievable limitations
of the hardware, that would have been limited, even had it ever been built. And
could see beyond that – she could see beyond that to a future of “computing for
its own sake” if you like. That local link has been very important to us as part of
the bicentenary celebrations of Ada, December 2015. Everybody labelled
everything “The Ada Lovelace Laboratory” or “The Ada Lovelace Thing”. Our excuse for
doing this – we’ve labelled our first-year lab as: “The Ada Lovelace Computing Laboratory” is
that there is this local connection. I don’t know that she ever visited Newstead Abbey
[in fact she did visit Newstead – in 1850].
She probably lived in London most of her life with her Mum. And I bet you her
mother, if there had been any talk of a trip to Newstead, would have vetoed
it, because it might have, y’ know, taken you too near to “That Man” or something like that – but, yes, that is our local connection.

51 thoughts on “Computer Science’s Wonder Woman: Ada Lovelace – Computerphile”

  1. I appreciate that you guys didn't over-hype or under-hype Ada's contributions. So many have revered her for being a woman instead of her actual accomplishments.

  2. That bit about Babbage wanting to write an anonymous preface, and thinking nobody would catch on, might make him the original Sheldon Cooper.

  3. I'm a Greek so I personally wanna thank Lord Byron for fighting for our Greek Independence in 1824. He is like a hero for us. And yes, Byron was also a guerilla fighter and a warrior, besides anything else. A poet warrior actually.

  4. So she was basically predicting neural networks! – analytical machine.  But without computers/software they could only imagine a steam powered one, lol.  But the principal is the same so that was some pretty forward thinking.

  5. Watched this after finishing Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" and now I am beginning to wonder if an education based on what Ada experienced could be more beneficial to what is available today.

  6. Shortly after your last video I replaced the picture of "The Late Mr. Babbage" on my work desk with Ada Lovelace. Needless to say she's a bigger hit with the ladies. They all agreed that he looked rather "thin skinned" while she looks fabulous in her ways.

  7. love this video but I'm not a big fan of the cuts to older Prof Brailsford videos: I find them disorientating. Just some feedback 🙂

  8. Now I'm confused. On one hand (very honoured hand indeed) there is this great storytelling by professor Brailsford, and the on the other there is a "Controversy" section of Ada's wiki page, where several historians are cited, claiming that Ada was nice and all – but not a real scientist and more like a kinda PR gal of the Babbage's undertakings. Is this really so difficult to call – as mentioned several times, there is plenty of correspondence and paper trail – so how could there be a controversy?

  9. Сергей Раковский


  10. Babbage's Wife was long dead at that point and what about George Boole? did he not invent the logic maths studied by De Morgan?>

  11. First, I want to thank Computerphile for these videos and Prof. Brailsford and all the other participants for the all the great videos. What I want to say regarding Ada Lovelace is that her greatest feat was to recognize how numbers could be used to represent anything you wanted. It didn't have to all be about numbers, they could represent text, sound, anything really. Without that insight we might all be using high-tech calculators instead of general purpose computers!

  12. The value of a computer isn't solely in doing what the original designer intends, but in the uses to which people beyond the designer will put it.

    She's probably the first example of the historical end-user…. or possibly the first victim of vaporware.

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