The only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron, Ada had inherited her father’s romantic spirit, a trait that her mother tried to temper by having her tutored in mathematics. The resulting combination produced in Ada a love for what she took to calling “poetical science,” which linked her rebellious imagination to an enchantment with numbers. She appreciated both the arts and the sciences. For many people, including her father, the rarefied sensibilities of the Romantic Era clashed with the techno-excitement of the Industrial Revolution. But Ada was comfortable at the intersection of both eras.
Thus it was not surprising that her debut at court, despite the glamour of the occasion, made less impression on her than her attendance, a few weeks later, at another majestic event of the London season: one of the Saturday evening salons hosted by Charles Babbage, a 41-year-old widowed science and math eminence who had established himself as a luminary on London’s social circuit. “Ada was more pleased with a party she was at on Wednesday than with any of the assemblages in the grand monde,” her mother reported to a friend. “She met there a few scientific people – amongst them Babbage, with whom she was delighted.”
Babbage’s salons, which included up to three hundred guests, brought together lords in swallow-tail coats and ladies in brocade gowns with writers, industrialists, poets, actors, statesmen, explorers, botanists, and other “scientists,” a word that Babbage’s friends had recently coined.By doing so, said one noted geologist, Babbage “successfully asserted the rank in society due to science.”
The evenings featured dancing, readings, games, and lectures accompanied by an assortment of seafoods, meats, fowls, exotic drinks, and iced desserts. Women staged tableaux vivant, in which they dressed in costume to recreate famous paintings. Astronomers set up telescopes, researchers showed off their electrical and magnetic contraptions, and Babbage let guests play with his mechanical dolls, including his famous “Silver Lady” dancer. The centerpiece of the evening – and one of Babbage’s many motives for hosting them – was his demonstration of a model portion of his Difference Engine, a mammoth mechanical calculating contraption that he was building in a fireproof structure adjacent to his home in Dorset Street, near Regent’s Park.Babbage would display the model with great drama, cranking its arm as it calculated a sequence of numbers and, just as the audience began to get bored, showed how the pattern could suddenly change based on instructions that had been coded into the machine. Those who were especially intrigued would be invited through the yard to the former stables, where the full machine was being built.
Babbage’s Difference Engine, which could compute polynomial functions, impressed people in different ways. The Duke of Wellington commented how it might be useful in analyzing all the variables a general might face before going into battle. Ada’s mother Lady Byron marveled that it was a “thinking machine.” As for Ada, who would later famously note that machines could never truly think, a friend who went with them to the demonstration reported: “Miss Byron, young as she was, understood its working, and saw the great beauty of the invention.”[vi]
Edwin Land, Alan Kay, Steve Jobs and other imaginative innovators would later say that they loved to stand at the intersection of the arts and sciences. So did Ada. Her love of both poetry and math primed her to see “great beauty” in a computing machine. She was an exemplar of the era of Romantic science, which was characterized by a lyrical enthusiasm for invention and discovery. It was a period that brought “imaginative intensity and excitement to scientific work,” Richard Holmes wrote in The Age of Wonder. “It was driven by a common ideal of intense, even reckless, personal commitment to discovery.”[vii]
In short, it was a time not unlike our own. The advances of the Industrial Revolution – including the steam engine, mechanical loom, and telegraph – transformed the 19th Century in much the same way that the advances of the Digital Revolution – the computer, microchip, and Internet – have transformed our era. At the heart of both revolutions were innovators who combined imaginative passion with wondrous technology, an admixture that produced Ada’s “poetical science” and what the 20th-century poet Richard Brautigan would call “machines of loving grace.”
Ada inherited her poetic and rebellious nature from her father, but he was not the source of her love for machinery. In his maiden speech in the House of Lords, given in February 1812 when he was 24, Byron defended the Luddites who were rampaging against mechanical weaving machines. With sarcastic scorn he attacked the mill owners of Nottingham, who were advocating a bill that would make destroying these automated looms a crime punishable by death. “These machines were to them an advantage, inasmuch as they superseded the necessity of employing a number of workmen, who were left in consequence to starve,” Byron declared. “The rejected workmen, in the blindness of their ignorance, instead of rejoicing at these improvements in arts so beneficial to mankind, conceived themselves to be sacrificed to improvements in mechanism.”
Two weeks after the speech, Byron published the first two cantos of his epic poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” – a romanticized account of his wanderings through Portugal, Malta, and Greece – and, as he later recalled, “awoke one morning and found myself famous.” Beautiful, seductive, troubled, brooding, and sexually adventurous, he was living the life of a Byronic hero while also creating the archetype in his poetry. He became the toast of literary London and found himself feted at three parties each day, most memorably a lavish morning dance on March 25 hosted by Lady Caroline Lamb.
Lady Caroline, though married to a politically-powerful aristocrat who later became prime minister, fell madly in love with Byron. He regarded her as “too thin,” yet she had an unconventional sexual ambiguity (she liked to dress up as a page boy) that he found enticing. They had a turbulent affair, and after it ended she stalked him obsessively. Famously she declared him to be “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” which he was. So was she.
At Lady Caroline’s party, Lord Byron also noticed a more reserved young woman who was, he recalled, “more simply dressed than the rest of the assembly.” Annabella Milbanke, 19, was from a wealthy and multi-titled family that was related to Lady Caroline’s husband. The night before the party, she read “Childe Harold” and had mixed feelings. “He is rather too much of a mannerist,” Annabella wrote in her diary. “He excels most in the delineation of deep feeling.” Her opinion about the man himself was also conflicted, dangerously so, as she revealed in a letter to her mother:
Yesterday, I went to a morning party at Lady Caroline Lamb’s, where my curiosity was much gratified by seeing Lord Byron, the object at present of universal attention. Lady C. has of course seized on him, notwithstanding the reluctance he manifests to be shackled by her... I did not seek an introduction to him, for all the women were absurdly courting him, and trying to deserve the lash of his Satire. I am not desirous of a place in his lays... I made no offering at the shrine of Childe Harold, though I shall not refuse the acquaintance if it comes my way.[viii]
His acquaintance did, as it turned out, come her way. After he was introduced to her formally, Byron decided that Annabella might make a suitable wife. It was, for him, a rare display of rationalism over romanticism: Rather than arousing his passions, she seemed to be the sort who might tame those passions and protect him from his emotional excesses – as well as help pay off his burdensome debts. He proposed to her half-heartedly in a letter. She sensibly declined. He wandered off to far less appropriate liaisons, including one with his half-sister Augusta Leigh. But after a year, Annabella rekindled the courtship with the help of an aunt. Byron, falling more deeply in debt while grasping for a way to curb his enthusiasms, saw the rationale if not the romance in the possible relationship. “Nothing but marriage and a speedy one can save me,” he admitted to Annabella’s aunt. In January 1815 they were married.
Byron initiated the marriage in his Byronic fashion. “Had Lady Byron on the sofa before dinner,” he wrote about his wedding day.[ix] We know that their relationship was still active when they visited Lord Byron’s half-sister, Augusta Leigh, two months later, because around then Lady Byron got pregnant. However, during the visit she began to realize that her husband’s relationship with Augusta went beyond the fraternal, especially after he lay down on a sofa and asked them both to take turns kissing him.[x] The marriage began to unravel.
Annabella had been tutored in mathematics, which amused Lord Byron, and during their courtship he joked about his own disdain for the exactitude of numbers. “I know that two and two make four - and should be glad to prove it too if I could,” he wrote, “though I must say if by any sort of process I could convert two and two into five it would give me much greater pleasure.” Early on, he affectionately dubbed her the “Princess of Parallelograms.” But when the marriage began to sour, he refined that mathematical image: “We are two parallel lines prolonged to infinity side by side but never to meet.” Later, in the first canto of his epic poem “Don Juan,” he would mock her: “Her favourite science was the mathematical… Her thoughts were theorems… She was a walking calculation.”
The marriage was not saved by the birth of their daughter, on December 10, 1815, in their London townhouse. She was named Augusta Ada Byron, her first name that of Byron’s too-beloved half-sister. When Lady Byron became convinced of her husband’s perfidy, she thereafter referred to her daughter by her middle name. Five weeks later, Lady Byron packed her belongings into a carriage and fled to her parents’ country home with young Ada.
The separation was permanent. Ada would never see her father again. Lord Byron left the country that April after Lady Byron, in letters so calculating that she earned his sobriquet of “Mathematical Medea,” used the threat of exposing his alleged incestuous and homosexual affairs as a way to secure a separation agreement that gave her custody of Ada. [xi]
The opening of Canto 3 of Childe Harold, written a few weeks later, invokes Ada as his muse:
`Is thy face like thy mother's, my fair child!
Ada! sole daughter of my house and of my heart?
When last I saw thy young blue eyes they smiled'
And then we parted…
Byron wrote these lines in a villa by Lake Geneva, where he was staying with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his future wife Mary. Because of the eruption of a volcano in Indonesia, much of the world was locked into a dark and cold summer, and it rained incessantly. Trapped inside for days, Byron suggested they write horror stories. He produced a fragment of a tale about a vampire, which became one of the first literary efforts to capitalize on that vein, but the story bgun by Mary was the one that became a classic: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Playing on the ancient Greek myth of the hero who crafted a living man out of clay and snatched fire from the gods for human use, Frankenstein was the tale of a scientist who galvanized a man-made assemblage into a thinking human. It was a cautionary tale from the Romantic Era about technology and science. It also raised a question that would become associated with Byron’s daughter Ada: Can man-made machines ever truly think?
The third canto of “Childe Harold” ends with Byron’s prediction that Ada’s mother would try to keep her from knowing of her father and then would teach her to hate him, and so it happened. There was a portrait of Lord Byron at their house, but Lady Byron kept it securely veiled, and Ada never looked at it until she was 20.[xii]
Lord Byron, on the contrary, kept a picture of Ada on his desk wherever he wandered, and his letters home often requested news or portraits of her. When she was seven, he wrote to Augusta: “I wish you would obtain from Lady B some accounts of Ada’s disposition… Is the girl imaginative? … Is she passionate? I hope that the Gods have made her anything save poetical – it is enough to have one such fool in the family.”[xiii]
Lady Byron replied that Ada had an imagination that was “chiefly exercised in connection with her mechanical ingenuity.” She added that Ada was “very fond of society and talking,” and she sent along a miniature portrait.
Around that time, Byron – who had been wandering through Italy, writing, and having an assortment of affairs – grew bored and decided to enlist in the Greek struggle for independence from the Ottoman empire. He sailed for Missolonghi, where he took part of the rebel army under his command and prepared to attack a Turkish fortress. But before he could engage in battle, he caught a violent cold that was made worse by his doctor’s decision to treat him by bloodletting. On April 19, 1824, he died. According to his valet, among his final words were: “Oh, my poor dear child! – my dear Ada! My God, could I have seen her! Give her my blessing.”
Lady Byron wanted to make sure that Ada did not turn out like her father, and part of her strategy was to have the girl rigorously study math, as if it were an antidote to poetic imagination and romantic rebelliousness. When Ada showed, at age five, a preference for geography, Lady Byron ordered that the subject be replaced by additional arithmetic lessons, and her governess soon proudly reported, “she adds up sums of five or six rows of figures with accuracy.” Despite these efforts, Ada developed some of her father’s traits. She had an illicit affair with one of her male tutors, and when they were caught and the tutor banished, Ada tried to run away from home to be with him. In addition, she had mood swings that took her from feelings of grandiosity to deep despond, and she was afflicted by various maladies both physical and psychological.
Ada accepted her mother’s belief that an immersion in math could help tame her Byronic tendencies. After her dangerous liaison with her tutor, and inspired by seeing Babbage’s Difference Engine, she decided on her own to begin, at age 18, a new series of lessons in math. “I must cease to think of living for pleasure or self gratification,” she wrote her new tutor. “I find that nothing but very close and intense application to subjects of a scientific nature now seems to keep my imagination from running wild... It appears to me that the first thing is to go through a course of Mathematics.” He heartily agreed with the prescription. “You are right in supposing that your chief resource and safeguard at the present is in a course of severe intellectual study. For this purpose there is no subject to be compared to Mathematics.” He prescribed Euclidean geometry followed by a dose of trigonometry and elgebra.
Her interest in technology was stoked when her mother took her on a trip through the British industrial midlands to see the new factories and machinery. She was particularly impressed with an automated weaving loom that used punchcards to direct the creation of the desired fabric patterns, and she drew a sketch of how it worked. Her father’s famous speech in the House of Lords had defended the Luddites who had smashed such looms because of their fear of what technology might inflict on humanity. But Ada, never noting that she was rebelling from her father’s way of thinking, waxed poetical about them and saw the connection with what would someday be called computers. “This Machinery reminds me of Babbage and his gem of all mechanism,” she wrote.
Ada’s interest in applied science was further stoked when she met Britain’s preeminent female mathematician and scientist, Mary Somerville. She had just finished writing one of her great works, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, in which she tied together developments in astronomy, optics, electricity, chemistry, physics, botany, and geology. Emblematic of the time, it provided a unified sense of the wondrous endeavors of discovery that were underway. As she proclaimed in her opening sentence: “The progress of modern science, especially within the last five years, has been remarkable for a tendency to simplify the laws of nature and to unite detached branches by general principles.”
Even though women were not yet fully accepted as scientists, Somerville was respected for both her popular and scholarly writing. She became a friend, teacher, inspiration, and mentor to Ada. She met with her regularly, sent her math books, devised problems for her to solve, and patiently explained the correct answers. She was also a good friend of Babbage’s, and during the fall of 1834 she and Ada would often frequent his Saturday evening salons. In addition, Somerville’s son, Woronzow Greig, aided her efforts to settle down by suggesting to one of his former classmates at Cambridge that she would make a suitable – or at least interesting – wife.
William King was socially prominent, financially secure, quietly intelligent, and as taciturn as Ada was excitable. Like her, he was a student of science, but in a more practical way: His primary interests were crop rotation theories and advances in livestock breeding techniques. He proposed marriage within a few weeks of meeting Ada, and she promptly accepted. Her mother, with motives that only a psychiatrist could fathom, decided it was imperative to tell William about Ada’s earlier attempted elopement with her tutor. Despite this news, William was willing to proceed with the wedding, which was held that July 1835. “Gracious God, who has so mercifully given you an opportunity of turning aside from the dangerous paths, has given you a friend and guardian,” Lady Byron wrote Ada, adding that she should use this opportunity to “bid adieu” to all of her “peculiarities, caprices, and self-seeking.”
The marriage was a match made in rational calculus. For Ada, it offered her the chance to adopt a more steady and grounded life. More importantly, it allowed her to escape being dependent on her domineering mother. For William, it would mean having a fascinating, eccentric wife from a very wealthy and exceedingly famous family.
Lady Byron’s first cousin Viscount Melbourne (who had the misfortune of having been married to Caroline Lamb, by then deceased) was the prime minister, and he arranged that, in Queen Victoria’s coronation list of honors, William would become the Earl of Lovelace. His wife thus became Ada, Countess of Lovelace. As a result, she would be properly addressed as Lady Lovelace and go down in history known by the slightly incorrect moniker Ada Lovelace.
That Christmas of 1835, Ada received from her mother the family’s life-sized portrait of her father. Painted by Thomas Phillips, it showed Lord Byron, in romantic profile gazing at the horizon, dressed in traditional Albanian costume featuring a red velvet jacket, ceremonial sword, and headdress. For years it had hung over Ada’s grandparents mantelpiece, but it had been veiled by a green cloth from the day her parents had separated. Now she was trusted not only to see it but to possess it, along with the inkstand and pen he had used.
Her mother did something even more surprising when the Lovelaces’ first child, a son, was born a few months later. She suggested – or at least accepted the suggestion – that Ada name the boy Byron, which she did. The following year, Ada had a daughter, whom she dutifully named Annabella, after Lady Byron. Ada then came down with yet another mysterious malady, perhaps cholera, which kept her bedridden for months. She recovered well enough to have a third child, a son named Ralph, but her health remained fragile. She had digestive and respiratory problems that were compounded by being treated with laudanum, morphine, and other forms of opium, which led to mood swings and occasional delusions.
She became further unsettled by the eruption of a personal drama that was bizarre even by the standards of the Byron family. It involved Medora Leigh, the daughter of Byron’s half-sister Augusta and perhaps, according to widely-accepted rumors, the product of his incest. If such tales were true, Medora – who was Ada’s age – seemed determined to show that darkness ran in the family. She became involved in a sexual threesome with a sister’s husband, then ran off with him to France and had two illegitimate children. In a fit of self-righteousness, Lady Byron forayed to France to rescue Medora, then revealed to Ada the story of her father’s incest.
This “most strange and dreadful history” did not seem to surprise Ada. “I am not in the least astonished,” she wrote her mother. “You merely confirm what I have for years and years felt scarcely a doubt about.”[xiv] Rather than being outraged, she seemed to be oddly energized by the news.[xv] She declared that she could relate to her father’s defiance of authority. Referring to her father’s “misused genius,” she declared to her mother, “If he has transmitted to me any portion of that genius, I would use it to bring out great truths and principles. I think he has bequeathed this task to me. I have this feeling strongly, and there is a pleasure attending it.”
Once again, Ada took up the study of math in order to settle herself, and she tried to convince Charles Babbage to become her tutor. “I have a peculiar way of learning, and I think it must be a peculiar man to teach me successfully,” she wrote. Whether due to her opiates or her breeding or both, she displayed occasional delusions about her own genius, a word she began to use frequently about herself. In her letter to Babbage, she wrote: “Do not reckon me conceited, but I believe I have the power of going just as far as I like in such pursuits, and where there is so decided a taste, I should almost say a passion, as I have for them, I question if there is not always some portion of natural genius even.”
Babbage deflected Ada’s request for his tutelage, which was probably fortunate. It preserved her friendship with him for an even more important collaboration, and she was able to secure a first-rate math tutor instead: Augustus De Morgan, a patient gentleman and superb mathematician who was a pioneer in the field of symbolic logic. He had propounded a concept in algebra that Ada would one day employ with great significance, which was that an algebraic equation could apply to things other than just numbers. The relations among symbols (for example, that a+b = b+a) could be part of a logic that applied even to things that were not numerical.
Ada she was never the great math master that her canonizers claim. But she was a passionate pupil, able to grasp most of the basic concepts of calculus, and with her artisitic sensibility liked to visualize the realities that the equations were painting. De Morgan encouraged her to focus on the rules for working through equations, but Ada was more eager to discuss the concepts that distinguished the two branches of calculus. Likewise, with geometry, she often asked for visual ways to picture problems, such as how the intersections of circles in a sphere divide it into various shapes.
Ada’s great strength was her ability to appreciate the beauty of mathematics, something that eludes many people, including some who fancy themselves intellectual. She realized that math was a lovely langauge, one that describes the harmonies of the universe, and it could be poetic at times. This ability to apply imagination to science characterized the Industrial Revolution as well as the computer revolution, for which she was to become a patron saint. She was able, as she told Babbage, to understand the connection between poetry and analysis in ways that transcended her father’s talents. “I do not believe that my father was (or ever could have been) such a Poet as I shall be an Analyst (& Metaphysician); for with me the two go together indissolubly,” she wrote.[xvi]
Her reengagement with math, she claimed to her mother, spurred her creativity and led to an “immense development of imagination, so much so that I feel no doubt if I continue my studies I shall in due time be a Poet.”[xvii] The whole concept of imagination, especially as it was applied to technology, intrigued her. “What is imagination?” she asked in an 1841 essay. “It is the Combining faculty. It brings together things, facts, ideas, conceptions in new, original, endless, every varying Combinations,”[xviii] she wrote. “It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science.”
By then Ada had come to fancy herself as possessing special, even supernatural, abilities, what she called “an intuitive perception of hidden things.” Her exalted view of her talents was not fully warranted, but it did impel her to act on aspirations that were unusual for an aristocratic woman and mother in the early Victorian age. “I believe myself to possess a most singular combination of qualities exactly fitted to make me pre-eminently a discoverer of the hidden realities of nature,” she explained in a letter to her mother in 1841. “I can throw rays from every quarter of the universe into one vast focus.”[xix]
It was while in this frame of mind that Ada decided to engage again with Charles Babbage, whose salons she had first attended eight years earlier. “I am very anxious to talk to you,” she wrote him in early 1841. She wanted to propose a collaboration, she hinted, in which “my head may be made by you subservient to some of your purposes and plans.”