Augusta Ada Lovelace by Don Miller

There can be little doubt that the 2nd January 1815 was an important day in the life of Seaham. Old Seaham, that is, because the development of the town was almost fourteen years away. It was on this day that a marriage took place, a marriage that would be of significance not just to the participants, but also to many with a sense of history, and even inevitability. There were many who said that this marriage was doomed to failure, not because they knew the bride and groom, but because it did not take place in a church. Yet the church was not much more than 100 yards from the bride’s home, where the marriage took place.

It was on this day that Anna Isabella Milbanke took a husband, George Gordon Noel Byron, Lord Byron, the ceremony taking place in Seaham Hall, not In the old Saxon church of St. Mary. The doom-mongers were right in their predictions as the couple separated only two weeks into their second year together, but only after the marriage was consummated. Their daughter, Augusta Ada Byron was born on 10 December and never knew her father. She was, therefore, moulded very much in her mother’s image. Isabella was renowned for her love of mathematics. A family friend, Benjamin Disraeli, British Prime Minister, described her as ‘The Princess of Parallelograms’.

Although we know little of Augusta Ada’s childhood it becomes apparent that she inherited her mother’s love of mathematics, as we shall see. In the early years of the nineteenth century it was impossible for a young lady, however intelligent, to take up a place at university. Consequently her studies were initially under her mother’s tutelage, but as she progressed she began corresponding with mathematicians. One of these was Mary Fairfax Somerville, a Scottish mathematician who was quite well know within the scientific fraternity. She encouraged Augusta Ada in her studies and introduced her to other mathematicians and also to William King. They were married in 1835, when she was 19 years old and her husband some eleven years older. Although not an intellectual he encouraged her in her mathematical studies.

Their marriage resulted in three children, two sons, Byron, born in 1836, Anne Isabella, 1837 and Ralph Gordon, born in 1839. It was  in the previous year that husband and wife became the Earl and Countess of Lovelace. He later became the Lord Lieutenant of Surrey.

One of those with whom Augusta Ada communicated, and who helped with her studies, was Augustus De Morgan who was the first Professor of Mathematics at University College, London.

Someone else with whom she communicated by letter, and ultimately developed a close friendship, was Charles Babbage. His home was Northcote Manor (now a highly recommended hotel) close to the north coast of Devon.  He has several claims to fame. In 1820, with others, he founded the Analytical Society. Perhaps more significantly, in 1831 he founded the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which continues to be held in high esteem within scientific circles. From this it is apparent that he was interested in scientific development.

He worked on two important  projects. He developed the Difference Engine, a mechanical calculating machine used for the production of mathematical tables. Of greater interest to our story of Augusta Ada is his work on an Analytical Engine.

Charles Babbage was not the best of communicators. In 1842 L.F. Menebrea, an Italian mathematician, and also Italian Ambassador to France delivered a lecture in French describing Babbage’s Analytical Engine. This was translated into English by Augusta Ada. Because of its complexity she added numerous notes to aid understanding, showing that she herself was au fait with the significance and function of the machine. Using the machine she developed a programme showing how to compute Bernoulli numbers. This programme has been described by some as the very first computer program.

Although the government of the day had financed Babbage’s research into the Difference Engine progress was so slow that funding was withdrawn. It was increasingly difficult for Babbage to continue his work which was a constant drain on his resources. Together with Lady Lovelace they attempted to turn their mathematical skill to a means of obtaining funds. Unfortunately their exploits in betting at the races only got both of them into even greater debt. Babbage survived bankruptcy but his partner was forced to pawn the family’s jewels to stave off her creditors, not without scandal!

From an early age Lady Lovelace had suffered poor health. in 1852 she died of uterine cancer. Interestingly, at her request, she was buried next to her father, Lord Byron, in the family vault at Hucknall Torknard church, near Nottingham. 

For most people her death would be the end of her story. She was largely forgotten until over a hundred years later. The United States Department of Defense developed a new computer system in the 1970s. The programming language was called Ada, in her honour. 


[Email Don Miller]