Lord Byron, the Father of Computer Programming?

Truth or fiction? Essentially, true. Though mathematics confounded him and he was by no stretch of the imagination a computer programmer himself, Lord Byron was the father of the very first computer programmer, his daughter, Augusta Ada Byron.

Impossible?   Computers are a twentieth-century invention, right?    Not so.

Augusta Ada Byron was born in London, on 10 December 1815. She was Lord Byron’s only legitimate child, and was named after his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, though he called his daughter "Ada." Her mother was Anne Isabella Milbanke, a niece of Byron’s friend, Lady Melbourne (the former Elizabeth Milbanke). Miss "Annabella" Milbanke was a very intelligent young woman, and her family made sure she had a good education, which included the classics, science and mathematics, which she particularly enjoyed. Byron called her his "Princess of Parallelograms." Sadly, within a few short months of Ada’s birth, her parents were legally separated. Shortly after that, Lord Byron left England, never to return. He never saw his daughter again. She was only eight years old when he died in Greece.

Lady Byron had come to believe that her husband was insane, which is the main reason she agreed to their separation. Because she was concerned that that same insanity might manifest itself in her daughter, she focused Ada’s studies on the "logical" disciplines of science and mathematics. She also actively discouraged the study of literature and the arts, believing these "emotional" subjects to be detrimental to her daughter’s mental health. She did, however, allow Ada to study music, so her education was not totally devoid of art.

Lady Byron and her daughter moved in the highest circles of English society. Ada made her debut at the Court of King William IV in 1833. It was at about the same time that she met Charles Babbage, who was then Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University. He had built his first computer, the Difference Engine in 1822. It was a machine which would calculate numerical tables mechanically. With her deep grounding in mathematics, Ada was fascinated by the machine when she and her mother visited Babbage’s studio, where it was on display. With their mutual interest in mathematics, Ada and Babbage remained friends for the rest of her life. He called her his "Enchantress of Numbers."

In July 1835, Ada married William King, 8th Baron King. Three years later, in 1838, he became the First Earl of Lovelace. Thus, Ada became the Countess of Lovelace. As was customary among the English aristocracy, her surname was then derived from her husband’s title, not his family name, for which reason she is known to history as Ada Lovelace. She and Lovelace had three children, Byron, Annabella and Ralph Gordon. After the birth of her second son, Ada devoted herself to an advanced study of mathematics under the tutelage of Augustus De Morgan.

Between 1842 and 1843, Ada set herself the task of translating the recent Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage, Esq., written by the Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea. The Analytical Engine was the newest general-purpose calculating machine proposed by Babbage. When he learned that Ada had translated the article, he asked her why she had not written her own original paper on a subject with which she was so familiar. With Babbage’s urging, she added notes to her translation of Menabrea’s paper. These Notes were ultimately three times longer than the original paper.

In the course of preparing her notes, Ada consulted regularly with Babbage on his expectations of the uses to which the as-yet-unbuilt Analytical Engine could be put. She believed the machine could be used to compose complex music, produce graphics, and be put to both scientific and practical uses. Ada included in her Notes an algorithm, or detailed set of instructions, on how the Analytical Engine could be used to calculate Bernoulli Numbers. This instruction set is considered by computer historians to be the first computer program.

In 1843, Ada Lovelace’s Notes were published in Volume 3 of Richard Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs. This was her first publication and was the high point of her mathematical achievements. Shortly after its publication, she wrote a number of enthusiastic letters to friends outlining her plans for future articles. Sadly, by the end of that year, her health began to deteriorate, and she was never again well enough to pursue her research for those planned publications. She died of uterine cancer on 27 November 1852, at the age of 36, the same age at which her father had died. She was laid to rest beside him, in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.

In 1953, more than a hundred years after her death, Ada’s Notes were rediscovered and republished. It was then that her algorithm for calculating Bermoulli numbers was recognized as the first computer program. In 1979, the United States Department of Defense named a compute program "Ada" in her honor. And so, in partnership with his "Princess of Parallelograms," Lord Byron was the father of the "Enchantress of Numbers," the woman who became the very first computer programmer.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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4 Responses to Lord Byron, the Father of Computer Programming?

  1. Pingback: Silk to Silicon:   How French Weaving Created Computer Commands | The Regency Redingote

  2. Pingback: Lord Byron, the Father of Computer Programming? | The Beau Monde

  3. Pingback: Silk to Silicon:   How French Weaving Created Computer Commands » The Beau Monde

  4. Pingback: Regency Bicentennial:   Birth of Ada Byron (Lovelace) | The Regency Redingote

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