10/29/2014 08:44 am ET Updated Dec 29, 2014

Ada Lovelace: A Science Legend

Have you heard of Ada Lovelace yet?

When one's spent more than fifteen years, as I have, thinking about Ada probably most days and certainly every week, it's too easy to imagine that everybody else has heard of her too. But in fact, though Ada is better known to us today than in her own short lifetime -- from 1815 to 1852 -- there are still many people who haven't heard of her. Indeed, I'm sure that most people haven't. But Ada really is someone you ought to consider adding to your repertoire of those people from the past who are worth knowing about.

There was a sense in which externally her life wasn't especially interesting, despite the unusual nature of her origins -- she was Lord Byron's only legitimate daughter. She was born in comparative poverty at a time when Lord Byron and his wife, Lady Byron -- formerly Annabella Milbanke -- were permanently in debt because a dowry promised to Byron by Annabella's father didn't materialize.

After only about a year of living with Byron, Ada's mother couldn't stand his debts and infidelities and erratic, even often crazy behavior, anymore and she fled from him early one morning taking with her the infant Ada - who'd been born on December 10, 1815. Ada was only one month and five days old when Lady Byron left her husband.

Although there was some talk of the couple being reconciled, in fact Byron never saw Ada or his wife again. He died eight years later, an exile in Greece trying hard to encourage support for a Greek assault on the Turks to win Greek freedom. Ada herself was brought up with a rigorous education supplied by her mother who within a few years of Ada's birth was independently wealthy.

Ada went on to get married to a rather ineffectual, if handsome and kind, man, Lord Lovelace from whom she derives the name Ada Lovelace which she is nowadays called rather than Ada Byron. She had three children and she was a relatively good and devoted mother. In 1852, after several years of ill health and a couple of years of often terrible pain, she died a dreadfully painful death of uterine cancer.

A fairly typical nineteenth-century life of an aristocratic woman: a life that ended too soon and which did not, on the face of it, contain very much in the sense of achievement. Except that that really is only a very superficial take on Ada.

The truth of the matter was that she was a fascinatingly imaginative and intellectually unusual woman. Her education was largely mathematical, partly because her mother was anxious that Ada wouldn't follow in what Lady Byron regarded as Lord Byron's excessively imaginative footsteps; Lady Byron encouraged the tutors she hired for Ada to use mathematics to suppress Ada's imagination.

But all this was in vain: when Ada was only twelve or thirteen years old she made meticulous plans to build herself a large pair of wings and to try to fly. It is perhaps just as well for posterity that Lady Byron got to know of these plans and forbade Ada from taking them any further: fortuitous for posterity because the lives of nineteenth century aviators were often brought to an abrupt halt by a nasty accident.

Undaunted, when Ada was only seventeen years old, she became good friends with an eccentric but undoubtedly brilliant English mathematician and inventor called Charles Babbage. He was twenty-four years her senior when they met at a party in London on June 5, 1833. It's not known what they talked about when they met, alas, but what is clear is that Ada was fascinated from the start by Babbage's attempts to build a calculating machine called the Difference Engine from cogwheels.

The following year, Babbage started work on an even more ambitious type of cogwheel calculator which he christened the Analytical Engine. It made use of punched cards and many of the features of a modern computer.

In fact, neither the Difference Engine nor the Analytical Engine were completed during Babbage's lifetime - although there was a successful modern project build a Difference Engine in 1991, using only materials and only levels of precision that Babbage himself could have achieved.

The 1991 machine worked perfectly, and today there are two working models in the world, thereby vindicating Babbage's dreams that his machine could be built. However, the Analytical Engine has not been built so far and may well never be. Even so, Babbage's plans for it are detailed and unquestionably show that he was trying to build a digital computer in the 1840s.

Ada became deeply interested in Babbage's work and translated from the original French a paper written about the Analytical Engine by an Italian scientist (in those days French was the European language of science whatever the nationality of the writer). Perhaps the most fascinating thing of all about Ada is this: she penned a lengthy essay about Babbage's Analytical Engine, which she appended to her translation. It is actually much longer than the translation itself: at around twenty thousand words, it essentially constitutes a short book that is one of the most exciting documents of the sparse prehistory of the computer.

What I found most interesting of all in my research on Ada is that it is beyond dispute nowadays (although for about twenty years male computer scientists avoided accepting this) that Ada had insights into the Analytical Engine that not even Babbage had. Ada saw that the machine was in fact a general-purpose machine that could be used to govern all sorts of processes, including, most exceptionally, music. In her paper she includes a succinct description of how the Analytical Engine would process music and this essentially is exactly what the modern digital friends we carry in our pockets and in our briefcases do for us whenever we want to listen to music.

Babbage, though, never saw his Analytical Engine as anything more than a machine for making calculations. Ada's vision -- and it really was a vision -- went far beyond what Babbage could see. Ada called her thinking about mathematical and scientific subjects 'political science' by which she seems to have meant science infused with the imagination.

Of course, today, when computer manufacturers and smartphone manufacturers have to sell their products by the millions in a highly competitive marketplace, they do bring the imagination very much to the service of how their computers can be used and how they are promoted and what functions they offer their users. But Ada was breaking virgin ground in her own writing on the Analytical Engine.

Ada also realized that Babbage, who could be irascible (the first ever biography of him is called The Irascible Genius), grumpy and indifferent to the agenda of others, was not, to put it mildly, a very diplomatic man. Ada offered her help to him with all the management aspects of his attempts to put together a project to build an Analytical Engine.

But sadly, Babbage was too obtuse -- and very possibly on that particular occasion too arrogant -- to realize what a great asset her help could be to him. He abruptly rejected offer of help. All the same, their friendship was strong enough to survive this rejection and the upset which Ada felt afterwards.

Ada didn't only have an amazing vision for the future of computing. She also wrote what in many ways can be seen as the world's first computer program, although, that depends on what you actually mean by a computer program but that is basically Ada's algorithm: a computer program she describes in her Notes and by which the Analytical Engine would have been able to carry out a particular mathematical function.

Ada was indeed amazing. Yet this aristocratic Victorian housewife, whose achievement in writing her essay, known today as Ada's Notes, was almost completely forgotten from around the 1850s until the 1970s. (With one notable exception: the British computer pioneer Alan Turing was aware of her work.) The 1970s, when Babbage's work was rediscovered and a new spotlight was put on Ada's own work, is today seen as one of the most insightful and visionary women in the history of science. What Ada referred to fondly as her 'poetical science' made her one of the most far-sighted women not only of the nineteenth century, but of all time.

James Essinger is the author of Ada's Algorithm: How Lord Byron's Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age.