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Ada Lovelace's 197th birthday: Byron's daughter had a math brain

December 10, 2012|By Deborah Netburn
  • The latest Google Doodle depicts Ada Lovelace and her contribution to mathematics and technology.
The latest Google Doodle depicts Ada Lovelace and her contribution to mathematics… (Google )

Ada Lovelace, who has been called the world's first computer programmer and the "enchantress of numbers," was honored by Google on Monday with a Google Doodle marking her 197th birthday.

If you've never heard of this mathematical pioneer, you are not alone. Megan Smith, a vice president at Google, and Lynette Webb, senior manager of external relations, write that as of last year, most people at Google hadn't heard of her either.

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace was born on December 10, 1815 in London--the daughter of Anne Isabelle Millbanke, and George Gordon Noel Byron--better known as Lord Byron, the poet. 

Photos: Google Doodles of 2012

Lovelace never had a relationship with her father. He and her mother separated when she was still an infant. Her mother, who was a mathematician herself, insisted her daughter be tutored in math and music in the hopes that Lovelace would not follow in her father's amoral footsteps. 

Lovelace showed an aptitude early on for mathematics, and when she was 17, she met and befriended Charles Babbage, who is now considered the "father of the computer." She was fascinated by a contraption he was building -- the Difference Engine, one of the earliest attempts to create a machine that could calculate a series of values automatically.

Babbage never finished the Difference Engine. Before it was completed he started work on the Analytical Engine, which could be programmed using punched cards. In 1843 Babbage asked Lovelace to translate a French article about the Analytical Engine by an Italian engineer named Luigi Manabrea. While translating the article, Lovelace added copious notes of her own -- including the first step-by-step sequences of operations for solving certain mathematical problems. It was these sets of instructions that have led to her be called the first computer programmer. 

Lovelace also saw potential in Babbage's machines that he may not have seen himself. As Smith and Webb write on Google's official blog, "While Babbage saw [the analytical engine] as a mathematical calculator, Ada understood it had much more potential. She realized it was, in essence, a machine that could manipulate symbols in accordance with defined rules, and -- crucially -- that there was no reason the symbols had to represent only numbers and equations. ... This was an astounding conceptual leap from calculation to computing."

"The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves," she wrote in 1843 in a lovely synthesis of mathematics and poetry.

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