Ada Lovelace's work created a plan for the future

Her goal was
to show how the Analytical Engine could calculate without the intervention of “human
hand or head.”

Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers, by Betty A. Poole, Strawberry Press, Sausalito,
Calif., 1998.

For women in information technology, Ada Lovelace is the magna mater—a bold
visionary who in 1843 was the first to write a program for Charles Babbage’s
Analytical Engine, a precursor of the modern computer.

Lovelace’s skills as a mathematician and scientist, her ability to foresee how
Babbage’s machine could be used to perform a previously unthinkable array of tasks,
and her diligence despite illness, drugs and a sensational family scandal have captured
the popular imagination.

Three biographies, numerous novels and plays, and one virtual reality movie have
depicted her life.

In 1979, the Defense Department honored her by naming its software programming language
Ada. Despite critics and increasing commercial competition, Ada remains the dominant
language of the Defense industry’s automated information systems.

In a newly revised and abridged version of Ada, The Enchant-ress of Numbers, author
Betty Toole interweaves Ada’s letters with biographical narrative to produce a
meticulous ac-count of the young woman who recognized the po-tential of Babbage’s
calculating engine at a time when most others did not. Of particular interest are the
sections de-voted to analyzing Ada’s notes on Babbage’s machine and how
Ada’s own speculations resonate in the software language that bears her name.

Lady Lovelace was born Ada Byron on Dec. 10, 1815.

Five weeks after Ada was born, her mother asked for a separation from her husband, the
famous poet Lord Byron.

Despite the separation, the competing proclivities of her parents—the literary
interests of her illustrious father and the mathematical and scientific interests of her
mother—inspired dual passions and skills in the young girl and led her to the
conclusion that she could devote her life to what she called poetical science.

Although Toole tends to overplay this duality in the book, she makes a good case for
how it helped the young mathematician navigate the heady wa-ters of the new industrial

“Ada just like her father had the ability to use imagination and metaphor to
evaluate accurately a concept or an idea,” Toole writes. “She applied this
talent to the description of a technological innovation that still has meaning

Ada’s immersion in new technology began with the teachings of Mary Somerville, a
mathematician whose texts were used at Cambridge. It was Somerville who urged Ada to link
mathematics and technology within a human context.

Somerville invited her ardent student to a dinner party at her house, where, for the
first time, Ada heard Charles Babbage’s ideas for a new calculating machine, the
Analytical Engine. Ada was 17. Babbage spoke of an engine that “could not only
foresee, but act on that foresight.” Ada was hooked.

Babbage reported on the developments for his new machine at a seminar in Turin, Italy,
in the autumn of 1841. An Italian engineer named Menebrea wrote a summary of what Babbage
described, and he published an article about it in French.

Ada, now married and the mother of three children under eight years old, was no less
devoted to the Analytical Engine. She translated Menebrea’s article and, at
Babbage’s request, added original notes of her own.

The notes ran three times as long as the article itself, but it is in these notes that
Ada reveals her intuitive understanding of what a computer might be able to do—from
producing graphics to composing complex music.

When Ada suggested to Babbage that the engine might be able to calculate Bernoulli
numbers, she wrote a plan, a complicated chore that produced what is now considered the
first computer program.

Ada’s job in translating Menebrea’s article and preparing her extensive notes
was “to synthesize Babbage’s ideas in such a way that the British government and
scientists would recognize the value of Babbage’s invention.”

Her goal was to show how the Analytical Engine could calculate Bernoulli numbers
without the intervention of “human hand or head” because numerical information
and operational instructions would be received by means of a punch card, which Babbage had
adapted from J.M. Jacquard.

Jacquard had used a punch card to instruct a loom how to weave designs into a fabric.
It is one of the many little pleasures of this book to find that what is typically
considered a homely part of a woman’s domain occupies such a central position in the
development of the computer.

The Analytical Engine possessed many characteristics of today’s computers. There
were four components—input, storage, processing and output—and two sets of
cards—variable and operational.

Although, as Toole notes, there was no programming in the modern sense, “by
arranging the cards one could program the engine to perform a repeating cycle or process,
taking numbers from the store.

“There were three mechanisms for the output of numerical information: an apparatus
for printing on paper, a means for producing a stereotype mould of the tables or results,
and a mechanism for punching on blank pasteboard cards or metal plates the results of any
of its computations.”

Babbage supplied the concept and design, and Ada, “being both an analyst and
metaphysician,” put that concept in a context through her notes, Toole writes.

But how did she get there? The book traces Ada’s education from arithmetic through
algebra and on to integral calculus.

Along the way, the beautiful aristocrat raised her children, dealt with the disclosure
of an alleged incestuous relationship between her father and his half-sister Augusta
Leigh, suffered increasingly ill health, was prescribed the opiate laudanum, dabbled in
gambling and staved off debt.

Somehow, she managed to stay focused on her work—work that, above all else, would
prove that Babbage’s Analytical Engine was light years ahead of Pascal’s
calculating machine.

Ada was forceful in her assertion that “the Analytical Engine has no pretensions
whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to
perform.” And it could perform functions that closely resemble software development
specification tasks, a feat not so different from what the modern Ada does.

For automated systems, Ada is the second most commonly language used after Cobol, with
more than 50 million lines of code, according to the National Research Council.

It still suffers from poor commercial success, although it will survive unscathed on
Jan. 1, 2000, as it does not easily let programmers represent dates in two-digit numbers.

But Ada Lovelace’s legacy is more than a viable computer language.

She was a woman of her time, and counted among her friends Michael Faraday and Charles

Toole’s book carries two subtitles: “Prophet of the Computer Age” and
“A Pathway to the 21st.” She was the first, forged the second and could easily
be a part of our time now. Her letters are isolated nuggets of speculation and inquiry,
ripe with the rhythms of e-mail.

Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers, is available in the original hardback (1992) for $29
or in the newly revised paperback (1998) for $14 from and at Borders

Carol J. Herman is a free-lance writer in Potomac, Md.

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Reader Comments

Tue, Mar 16, 2010

my comment is that this gives people alot of info on her work and purpos in life

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