Ada Lovelace – The Enchantress of Numbers

Women in Mathematics

Reading about Sophie Germain’s contributions to the world of mathematics ignited my curiosity about the role of other women in contributing to the advancement of math throughout history. Women have made some incredible contributions to mathematics, and I was more than pleasantly surprised (as a Computer Science major) to read the story of Ada Lovelace – the only legitimate daughter of the romantic poet Lord Byron, and the woman often called the world’s first “computer programmer” – her collaboration with British Mathematician Charles Babbage began around the middle of the 19th century.


Ada Lovelace was born to Lord Byron and Anne Isabelle Milbanke in 1815, though she never met her famous father – he was reportedly disappointed at not having a boy, and left both mother and child when Ada was only one month old. Lord Byron passed away when she was only eight years old (Ada herself was buried next to her father after she succumbed to uterine  cancer at only 37). Her mother saw to it that Ada did not take seek her father’s “artful” pursuits, and made sure that the girl was tutored in mathematics, science and music. While not unusual for someone of her family’s elite noble class, it was unusual for a woman to study math and science in that time. These intellectual pursuits led Ada to communicate with the circle of “gentlemanly scientists” of that era (though the term scientist was not actually coined until 1836, the description applies), and it was in this circle that she met her lifelong friend, British Mathematician Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Difference Engine (the machine itself never made it past the prototype stage). They wrote extensive correspondences back and forth on mathematics and logic, among other topics. Babbage was impressed by Lovelace’s intelligence and analytical skill, referring to her as the Enchantress of Numbers.


Watercolor portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (Ada Lovelace) by Alfred Edward Chalon. Alfred Edward Chalon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Babbage and the Analytical Machine

In the 19th century, complicated mathematical computations had to be done by hand, or using the shortcut of published tables, which also had to be written by hand and were prone errors themselves. In 1834, Babbage began work on a new kind of calculating machine, the Analytical Engine – a machine that would automate calculations of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. In 1842, Lovelace was enlisted by Babbage to translate from French the work of Italian mathematician Luigi (or Louis) Menabrae. Her work in this translation, and her copious notes written during the process, are responsible for her enduring fame.

Her contribution

Lovelace’s notes on Menabrae’s work were larger than the translation itself, and in them she describes how the Analytical Engine itself works, as well as an algorithm, or what she called a “plan”, for using the Analytical Engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. This is said to be the first algorithm specifically suited for a computational machine to carry out a series of instructions, using the “specific ability of a calculating device to make control decisions based on the data”. In her work, she also noted the grand potential of the Analytical Engine to solve problems of any complexity, and even projected that this type of machine could be used to “compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music”.

There is some controversy about the extent of Lovelace’s contribution. However, in their article published in Scientific American (issue 280, p 71-75), Eugene Eric Kim and Betty Alexander Toole noted that while Babbage wrote several small programs, none of his approached the complexity of Lovelace’s Bernoulli numbers program, and that this program was her idea; it also cannot be disputed that her vision for the potential of such machines to extend functionality beyond simple value computations was visionary, especially for the 19th century.


Women have contributed extensively to the advancement of mathematics and computer science (please read any biography you can get your hands on about the incomparable Admiral Grace Hopper, and look for my upcoming third blog post all about this amazing woman!), and it is important for these contributions to be recognized. This is not only to give credit where it is due, but also to give the many girls and women thinking about a future in the sciences and mathematics role models to look up to. Ada Lovelace is recognized in a number of ways: a day in early to mid October (the actual date varies) is celebrated now as Ada Lovelace day, a day to celebrate the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and the computer programming language Ada was created by the Department of Defense around 1980, named in her honor.




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