How a young woman with the uncommon talent of applying poetic imagination to science envisioned the Symbolic Medea that would become the modern computer, sparking the birth of the digital age.
Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, born Augusta Ada Byron on December 10, 1815, later came to be known simply as Ada Lovelace. Today, she is celebrated as the world’s first computer programmer — the first person to marry the mathematical capabilities of computational machines with the poetic possibilities of symbolic logic applied with imagination. This peculiar combination was the product of Ada’s equally peculiar — and in many ways trying — parenting.
Eleven months before her birth, her father, the great Romantic poet and scandalous playboy Lord Byron, had reluctantly married her mother, Annabella Milbanke, a reserved and mathematically gifted young woman from a wealthy family — reluctantly, because Byron saw in Annabella less a romantic prospect than a hedge against his own dangerous passions, which had carried him along a conveyer belt of indiscriminate affairs with both men and women.
But shortly after Ada was conceived, Lady Byron began suspecting her husband’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister, Augusta. Five weeks after Ada’s birth, Annabella decided to seek a separation. Her attorneys sent Lord Byron a letter stating that “Lady B. positively affirms that she has not at any time spread reports injurious to Lord Byrons [sic] character” — with the subtle but clear implication that unless Lord Byron complies, she might. The poet now came to see his wife, whom he had once called “Princess of Parallelograms” in affectionate reverence for her mathematical talents, as a calculating antagonist, a “Mathematical Medea,” and later came to mock her in his famous epic poem Don Juan: “Her favourite science was the mathematical… She was a walking calculation.”
Ada was never to meet her father, who died in Greece the age of thirty-six. Ada was eight. On his deathbed, he implored his valet: “Oh, my poor dear child! — my dear Ada! My God, could I have seen her! Give her my blessing.” The girl was raised by her mother, who was bent on eradicating any trace of her father’s influence by immersing her in science and math from the time she was four. At twelve, Ada became fascinated by mechanical engineering and wrote a book called Flyology, in which she illustrated with her own plates her plan for constructing a flying apparatus. And yet she felt that part of her — the poetic part — was being repressed. In a bout of teenage defiance, she wrote to her mother:
You will not concede me philosophical poetry. Invert the order! Will you give me poetical philosophy, poetical science?
Indeed, the very friction that had caused her parents to separate created the fusion that made Ada a pioneer of “poetical science.”
That fruitful friction is what Walter Isaacson explores as he profiles Ada in the opening chapter of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (public library | IndieBound), alongside such trailblazers as Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, and Stewart Brand. Isaacson writes:
Ada had inherited her father’s romantic spirit, a trait that her mother tried to temper by having her tutored in mathematics. The combination produced in Ada a love for what she took to calling “poetical science,” which linked her rebellious imagination to her enchantment with numbers. For many, 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.
When she was only seventeen, Ada attended one of legendary English polymath Charles Babbage’s equally legendary salons. There, amid the dancing, readings, and intellectual games, Babbage performed a dramatic demonstration of his Difference Engine, a beast of a calculating machine he was building. Ada was instantly captivated by its poetical possibilities, far beyond what the machine’s own inventor had envisioned. Later, one of her friends would remark: “Miss Byron, young as she was, understood its working, and saw the great beauty of the invention.”
Isaacson outlines the significance of that moment, in both Ada’s life and the trajectory of our culture:
Ada’s love of both poetry and math primed her to see 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 time not unlike our own. The advances of the Industrial Revolution, including the steam engine, mechanical loom, and telegraph, transformed the nineteenth century in much the same way that the advances of the Digital Revolution — the computer, microchip, and Internet — have transformed our own. At the heart of both eras were innovators who combined imagination and passion with wondrous technology, a mix that produced Ada’s poetical science and what the twentieth-century poet Richard Brautigan would call “machines of loving grace.”
Enchanted by the prospect of the “poetical science” she imagined possible, Ada set out to convince Charles Babbage to be her mentor. She pitched him in a letter:
I have a peculiar way of learning, and I think it must be a peculiar man to teach me successfully… 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.
Here, Isaacson makes a peculiar remark: “Whether due to her opiates or her breeding or both,” he writes in quoting that letter, “she developed a somewhat outsize opinion of her own talents and began to describe herself as a genius.” The irony, of course, is that she was a genius — Isaacson himself acknowledges that by the very act of choosing to open his biography of innovation with her. But would a man of such ability and such unflinching confidence in that ability be called out for his “outsize opinion,” for being someone with an “exalted view of [his] talents,” as Isaacson later writes of Ada? If a woman of her indisputable brilliance can’t be proud of her own talent without being dubbed delusional, then, surely, there is little hope for the rest of us mere female mortals to make any claim to confidence without being accused of hubris.
To be sure, if Isaacson didn’t see the immense value of Ada’s cultural contribution, he would not have included her in the book — a book that opens and closes with her, no less. These remarks, then, are perhaps less a matter of lamentable personal opinion than a reflection of limiting cultural conventions and our ambivalence about the admissible level of confidence a woman can have in her own talents.
Isaacson, indeed — despite disputing whether Ada deserves anointment as “the world’s first computer programmer” commonly attributed to her — makes the appropriateness of celebrating her contribution clear:
Ada’s ability to appreciate the beauty of mathematics is a gift that eludes many people, including some who think of themselves as intellectual. She realized that math was a lovely language, one that describes the harmonies of the universe and can be poetic at times. Despite her mother’s efforts, she remained her father’s daughter, with a poetic sensibility that allowed her to view an equation as a brushstroke that painted an aspect of nature’s physical splendor, just as she could visualize the “wine-dark sea” or a woman who “walks in beauty, like the night.” But math’s appeal went even deeper; it was spiritual. Math “constitutes the language through which alone we can adequately express the great facts of the natural world,” she said, and it allows us to portray the “changes of mutual relationship” that unfold in creation. It is “the instrument through which the weak mind of man can most effectually read his Creator’s works.”
This ability to apply imagination to science characterized the Industrial Revolution as well as the computer revolution, for which Ada 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; for with me the two go together indissolubly,” she wrote.
But Ada’s most important contribution came from her role as both a vocal champion of Babbage’s ideas, at a time when society questioned them as ludicrous, and as an amplifier of their potential beyond what Babbage himself had imagined. Isaacson writes:
Ada Lovelace fully appreciated the concept of a general-purpose machine. More important, she envisioned an attribute that might make it truly amazing: it could potentially process not only numbers but any symbolic notations, including musical and artistic ones. She saw the poetry in such an idea, and she set out to encourage others to see it as well.
In her 1843 supplement to Babbage’s Analytical Engine, simply titled Notes, she outlined four essential concepts that would shape the birth of modern computing a century later. First, she envisioned a general-purpose machine capable not only of performing preprogrammed tasks but also of being reprogrammed to execute a practically unlimited range of operations — in other words, as Isaacson points out, she envisioned the modern computer.
Her second concept would become a cornerstone of the digital age — the idea that such a machine could handle far more than mathematical calculations; that it could be a Symbolic Medea capable of processing musical and artistic notations. Isaacson writes:
This insight would become the core concept of the digital age: any piece of content, data, or information — music, text, pictures, numbers, symbols, sounds, video — could be expressed in digital form and manipulated by machines. Even Babbage failed to see this fully; he focused on numbers. But Ada realized that the digits on the cogs could represent things other than mathematical quantities. Thus did she make the conceptual leap from machines that were mere calculators to ones that we now call computers.
Her third innovation was a step-by-step outline of “the workings of what we now call a computer program or algorithm.” But it was her fourth one, Isaacson notes, that was and still remains most momentous — the question of whether machines can think independently, which we still struggle to answer in the age of Siri-inspired fantasies like the movie Her. Ada wrote in her Notes:
The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths.
In the closing chapter, titled “Ada Forever,” Isaacson considers the enduring implications of this question:
Ada might also be justified in boasting that she was correct, at least thus far, in her more controversial contention: that no computer, no matter how powerful, would ever truly be a “thinking” machine. A century after she died, Alan Turing dubbed this “Lady Lovelace’s Objection” and tried to dismiss it by providing an operational definition of a thinking machine — that a person submitting questions could not distinguish the machine from a human — and predicting that a computer would pass this test within a few decades. But it’s now been more than sixty years, and the machines that attempt to fool people on the test are at best engaging in lame conversation tricks rather than actual thinking. Certainly none has cleared Ada’s higher bar of being able to “originate” any thoughts of its own.
In encapsulating Ada’s ultimate legacy, Isaacson once again touches on our ambivalence about the mythologies of genius — perhaps even more so of women’s genius — and finds wisdom in her own words:
As she herself wrote in those “Notes,” referring to the Analytical Engine but in words that also describe her fluctuating reputation, “In considering any new subject, there is frequently a tendency, first, to overrate what we find to be already interesting or remarkable; and, secondly, by a sort of natural reaction, to undervalue the true state of the case.”
The reality is that Ada’s contribution was both profound and inspirational. More than Babbage or any other person of her era, she was able to glimpse a future in which machines would become partners of the human imagination, together weaving tapestries as beautiful as those from Jacquard’s loom. Her appreciation for poetical science led her to celebrate a proposed calculating machine that was dismissed by the scientific establishment of her day, and she perceived how the processing power of such a device could be used on any form of information. Thus did Ada, Countess of Lovelace, help sow the seeds for a digital age that would blossom a hundred years later.
Ada died of progressively debilitating uterine cancer in 1852, when she was thirty-six — the same age as Lord Byron. She requested that she be buried in a country grave, alongside the father whom she never knew but whose poetical sensibility profoundly shaped her own genius of “poetical science.”
The Innovators goes on to trace Ada’s influence as it reverberates through the seminal work of a stable of technological pioneers over the century and a half since her death. Complement it with Ada’s spirited letter on science and religion.