Lovelace, Ada

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The name by which UK mathematician and Computer theorist Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852) is normally and conveniently known; daughter of Lord Byron. Lovelace was raised by her mother from infancy, gaining from Anne Noel (1792-1860), an interest and intensive education in Mathematics. After meeting Charles Babbage in 1833, when he showed her his difference engine (see Computers), Lovelace applied her skills to the creation of programs capable of instructing Babbage's creations, intercalating her thoughts and figurings into "Sketch of the analytical engine invented by Charles Babbage esq. by L F Menabrea, of Turin, officer of the military engineers" (September 1843 Scientific Memoirs).

In this piece Lovelace was careful to distinguish between Babbage's difference engine, and his 1836 plans for the never-built but far more ambitious Analytical Engine for which her programs were designed, as described in Ada: The Enchantress of Numbers – A Selection from the Letters of Lord Byron's Daughter and her Description of the First Computer (1992) edited by Betty A Toole. (In 1979 the computer language Ada was so-named in her honour.) Lovelace herself was seriously ill over the last years of her short life, which along with the then technological unfeasibility of the Analytical Engine, has contributed (not unjustly) to her being treated as a highly potentiated Icon of the submersion of women of science in the nineteenth century (see Feminism). Several nonfantastic tales and plays focus on her life and (perhaps inevitably) relationships.

Writers who have created Alternate Histories where both Babbage's machines and Lovelace's programs succeed (see also Steampunk) include William Gibson and Bruce Sterling in The Difference Engine (1990), which transfers Ada's interest to the earlier machine; and John Crowley in Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land (2005), in which she is a central character. She is the apparent inspiration for the teenaged mathematical genius Thomasina Coverly in Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia (1993 chap). She is the protagonist, both as her historical self and as a simulation on a Far-Future Quantum Computers, of Masaki Yamada's Ada (1994). Lovelace is an underlier figure, not exactly named, in Bryan Talbot's Heart of Empire; Or, the Legacy of Luther Arkwright (2001 graph), and she occupies with Babbage a founder's role in Paul Crilley's The Lazarus Machine (2012) and its sequels. She features in the Young Adult Steampunk Wollstonecraft Detective Agency series by Jordan Stratford, beginning with The Case of the Missing Moonstone (2015). In Conceiving Ada (1997) directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson, a contemporary Computer scientist uses "undying information waves" (see Pseudoscience) to give birth to a child with Lovelace's personality.

Fortunately, Lovelace's life and achievements are no longer secrets to be unveiled; in this context it might be suggested that the indirections through which notable women of that era were forced to express themselves should not be taken as prima facie evidence that their accomplishments were essentially supportive of their betters. That Ada Lovelace's findings in 1843 were expressed in the form of notes attached to the findings of a male itself requires decipherment. Her life throughout shows arguable signs of misprision. [JC]

Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace

born London: 10 December 1815

died London: 27 November 1852


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