SciTech Tuesday: Ada Lovelace Day, and the return of Ask The Expert
Today is Ada Lovelace day. Ada is honored with her own day for being the first software developer. She described algorithms and computers that were the basis for the Turing Machine used to crack the Enigma Code.
Augusta Ada Byron was born in 1815, the only child Lord Byron had by his wife Anne Isabelle Byron. In letters, Byron, who had expressed disappointment that his only legitimate offspring was not male, called her Ada. Byron and his wife
separated a month after the child was born, and Ada never knew her father. He died when she was 8 years old and she was not allowed to see even a portrait of him until she was an adult.
Ada’s mother encouraged her to pursue mathematical and technical topics, to avoid her exhibiting any of Byron’s romantic instability. This encouragement occurred mostly at a distance, as Anne Isabelle preferred to leave her daughter’s actual care to relatives and tutors. She looked and acted the part of an Austen minor character—a pretty and smart young woman who fell for her tutor and was rescued from an inappropriate elopement. In spite of this, the young woman became popular at court, and Charles Babbage made of her a sort of apprentice.
Babbage had worked with John Herschel on astronomical calculations, and was frustrated by mathematical errors. He designed a “Difference Engine” that would calculate polynomial functions, and convinced the British Treasury to bankroll its development. The machine was never completed because of Babbage’s conflicts with the mechanic building it. Only a
small part was completed, although £17,500 had been spent to make it. Babbage used the completed portion to develop his ideas, and to teach students like Ada Byron.
Babbage had met Ada Byron at a party soon after her presentation at court, in 1832. He was impressed by her mathematical knowledge. Ten years later, she took the opportunity with the publication of her translation of an Italian article about the machine, to publish her notes on its use. Ada Byron suggested that the calculating machine could be used, with symbols, to work out logic, and not just calculations. Her notes on how this might work included algorithms that are now considered the first computer programs. In fact, Ada’s description of the use of a mechanical device that used symbols and algorithms to find solutions fairly accurately describes a Turing Machine. Because of this, her work is considered crucial to the effort to solve the Enigma Code about 100 years later.
Ada died in 1852, only 9 years after the publication of her Notes. Those years of her life were more a mixture of Dickens and Thackeray. She discovered that her close friend Medora Leigh (daughter of Lord Byron’s half sister from whom Ada took the name Augusta), was actually her half-sister (that’s the Dickens part). Ada Byron became Ada King in 1835 after marrying William King. They had 3 children (one named Byron), and when her husband became the Earl of Lovelace, she acquired the name under which she is still honored. She flirted and gambled her way through most of the 1840s, developing a mathematical model for casino betting with male compatriots. The venture went disastrously wrong, and ended in her owing thousands of pounds, and her having to admit all to her husband (that’s the Thackeray part). Her life was ended by overly enthusiastic physicians attempting to treat her uterine cancer with bloodletting.
Ada Lovelace day was founded, as was the Ada Initiative and other efforts, to recognize the past accomplishments of women in STEM, and to encourage current and future participation in STEM by women.
Also today, you can see the new Ask the Expert video to find out how planes fly (explained in less than 2 minutes).
You can view all the other videos, and ask your own questions, on our SciTech site.
Posted by Rob Wallace, STEM Education Coordinator at The National WWII Musuem
Images from Wikimedia Commons.