The Dilettante Society: Augusta Ada Lovelace

9 February 15 words: The Dilettante Society
The daughter of Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke bridged the gap between the art and science worlds. Two lovely ladies tell us more
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illustration: Christine Dilks

Through the most contrary of methods, both the scientist and the artist seek to understand and explain life and the world around them. Where artistic minds exercise expression, intuition and emotion to discover their truths, scientists and mathematicians favour rationality, evidence and absolutes in their reasoning. However, when we can combine or transcend these differences, things become far more interesting, with results often groundbreaking or occasionally just plain mad.

The remarkable Augusta Ada Lovelace bridged the gap between the seemingly opposite realms of artistic romanticism and scientific rationality, earning her the impressive - if occasionally disputed - accolade of the world’s first computer programmer. And this was back in the nineteenth century, in days when curtseys and corsets were a staple part of a woman's worth. It would require a most interesting heritage and character for a woman to find herself in a position of forwarding the world technologically, and they were things Ada certainly had.

She was the only daughter of the 'mad, bad, and dangerous to know' Romantic poet, Lord Byron, and admired intellect Anne Isabella 'Annabella' Byron – a confusing match at first glance. Annabella Milbanke, a religious and mathematically gifted woman of strict morals and a prim, detached disposition, seemed entirely unsuited to the excesses and dubious moral character of her husband. In fact, at the time of their marriage, the rumour mill was rife with aspersions concerning the questionable nature of his relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh, and many have theorised that Byron pursued the marriage reluctantly to alleviate his mounting debts and improve his public standing.

Lady Byron rapidly began to see her new beau’s dark moods, eccentricities and extramarital activities as evidence of his insanity and, fearing the dangerous influence of Byron’s dark decadence on Ada, they divorced a month after her birth. Byron soon left for his travels, and would die eight years later, never to meet his daughter.

The unusual circumstances of Ada’s upbringing were key to her unique sensibility; her temperament conditioned in a parental tug of war between her absent father's poetic visions and salacious lifestyle, and her mother's dominance.

To counteract any inherited tendency towards romantic excess, she was strictly educated in science and maths from the age of four. With a rigorous programme of selected studies, enforced by harsh punishments and snooping relatives, she flourished academically. Persistently steering Ada away from the arts, her mother hoped to eradicate any trace of her father’s influence. Immersed in the sciences, Ada became fascinated by mechanical engineering, writing her first book Flyology aged twelve. Illustrated with plates of her own design, the book recorded her carefully researched plans for creating a flying machine, where she examined the flight and feathers of birds as well as materials like silk and paper. While the venture was dismissed as ‘fanciful’ by her mother, it would hint at the fusion of rational science and imaginative art that characterised Ada’s later work.

As her independence grew, Ada - quite rightly - took issue with her mother’s insistence that there was no place for poetics in the objective world of the sciences. Perhaps it was this very repression of the ‘dangerous’ world of arts that lead to her longing for what she termed ‘poetical science’, where imagination and a passion for invention and discovery could thrive.

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illustration: Christine Dilks

She saw no antagonism between the sensibilities of the Romantic era and the technological preoccupation of the Industrial Revolution. Rather, she looked to where these separate realms could coincide, invoking a sense of wonder and artistry into the machine. Beyond mere number crunching, she saw, as an acquaintance of Ada and Babbage put it, “the great beauty of the invention” and its potential to revolutionise. This ability to unite poetic sensibilities with mathematical theory would lead to one of her greatest achievements: interpreting Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine.

The Analytical Engine provided the first examples of a computer memory and processor, with punched cards providing input and output systems. In all honesty, we’re not entirely clear on the workings of this pioneering mechanical computer; such matters extend far beyond our areas of expertise and, for us, the romance of the plot far outweighs the intricate details of the mechanisms. Indeed, we’re inclined to side with Byron’s thoughts on the unfathomable; as he wrote to Annabella - his ‘Princess of Parallelograms’ - during their courtship, “I agree with you quite upon Mathematics too - and must be content to admire them at an incomprehensible distance - always adding them to the catalogue of my regrets.”

The machine and its implications captivated Ada, and her contribution to modern computing lies in her translation of an article on it by an Italian engineer - Luigi Menabrea. Her many pages of additional notes greatly developed and improved the original, foreseeing various functions and practical uses the machine could provide, including composing complex music and producing graphics.

Due to the collaborative nature of her work, many detractors have suggested that Ada is underserved of her title as the world’s first computer programmer, while others regard her as providing a level of understanding which perhaps even Babbage himself had not achieved.

Though the translation remained her only published work, she continued to correspond with Charles Babbage for the following eighteen years, until her untimely death at the age of 36. Indeed it was Babbage who bestowed upon her the title ‘Enchantress of Numbers’. Together, they created quite a scandal, indulging Ada’s penchant for gambling by devising a ‘fool-proof’ system of betting on the horses based on mathematical theories of probability. Sadly, the venture was not as successful as they’d imagined and, in true bohemian fashion, they accumulated debts far beyond what flogging the family jewels could salvage.

Despite his absence from her life, Ada shared some of her father’s wanton ways and, in her later years, developed quite a fondness for wine and opium. However, where her father may have used such intoxications as a source of inspiration or simply recreation, Ada sought to understand such pleasures by writing a critical paper on their effects gained from her own experiences. Whether this was her genuine intention or merely a way of excusing her indulgences, one can only guess. Her flirtatious relationships with male companions also caused a stir, and over 100 letters to such acquaintances were destroyed by her husband upon her death, presumably for fear they would tarnish her reputation.

At her request, Ada was buried by her father’s side in the Byron Vault at St Mary Magdalene Church in Hucknall. A century passed and her important work lay virtually forgotten but, with the coming of the computer age, she began to receive the credit she deserves. Her legacy is widespread within computing and mathematical fields, with a primary programming language named after her in the late seventies, and Ada Lovelace Day is now celebrated annually to mark the contributions by women to science, engineering, technology and mathematics.

An extraordinary life, punctuated by good measures of hard work, imagination, and daring. Ada’s example of mixing disciplines and indulging her visionary ideas, despite her complicated upbringing and society’s attitude to the role of women, deserves to be celebrated.   

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