Victorian visionary Ada Lovelace: a pioneer of the computer age from Surrey
PUBLISHED: 15:12 29 February 2016 | UPDATED: 15:20 29 February 2016
Science Museum, SSPL
With a major exhibition at London’s Science Museum devoted to the Victorian visionary Ada Lovelace, a pioneer of the computer age, Aly Warner brings us the fascinating story of this Surrey super-brain, who is often heralded as the first programmer
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine February 2016
Two hundred years ago, baby Augusta Ada was whisked away from her scandalous father, the poet Lord Byron, by his wife, Annabella, Countess Wentworth. Ada Lovelace, as she later came to be known, never saw her famous father again. But despite this unpromising start, Ada surpassed all expectations of Victorian women. While living in various grand homes in Surrey, Ada went on to become a skilled mathematician and computer visionary – whose work played a part in cracking the German wartime Enigma codes – and she is currently being commemorated by a major exhibition at London’s Science Museum.
“Ada is now a household name among the scientific community,” says author Pam Bowley, of the East Horsley-based Horsley Countryside Preservation Society, the village where Ada lived towards the end of her life. “Her name has even been adopted for a major computer language [ADA].”
As the only legitimate daughter of Byron and the admired intellect Annabella, Ada was a celebrity from the moment of her birth in December 1815. But once Annabella had left her notorious husband (who spent the rest of his life abroad and died when Ada was eight years old), she made it her mission to prevent Ada from inheriting his unpredictable temperament; Byron was once described by a former lover as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. The strict regime included forbidding Ada to see even Byron’s portrait, which remained hidden behind a curtain.
This wasn’t the only way in which Ada was given an unconventional upbringing for a 19th century girl. She also loved machines and, unusually, was schooled in science and mathematics from a very early age, which soon became her passion. Her tutor, Augustus De Morgan, once said prophetically that if Ada had been born a man, she would have had the potential to become “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence”.
Then, at the age of 17, Ada met the much older Charles Babbage, Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge and an inventor. His Difference Engine, now recognised as an early model for the computer, was devised to perform mathematical calculations, and this fascinated the young student. As a result, they began a long correspondence on the topics of logic and maths; he called Ada the ‘Enchantress of Numbers’ and this friendship was to change her life.
Unlike Babbage, Ada saw the potential for his later Analytical Engine to move beyond simple maths. During a nine-month period in 1842-3, while living on her estate in north-east Surrey’s Ockham Park (which has since burnt down), young Ada translated an article on Babbage’s Analytical Engine by Italian engineer Federico Menabrea (later Italy’s prime minister). Familiar with Babbage’s work, which he had not yet recorded in writing, she also added ‘notes’ of her own (tripling the article’s length), showing how the Analytical Engine could work. Ada even anticipated future developments, including computer-generated music.
She also devised a method for the engine to repeat a series of instructions – a process known as looping – that computer programs still use today. For this work, Ada is now often heralded as the first computer programmer, which is justly being celebrated in the current exhibition at the Science Museum (see more about that on page 46).
“Ada’s ideas about the potential of Babbage’s calculating machine, the Analytical Engine, were important regardless of her gender,” says curator of the Ada Lovelace exhibition, Katherine Platt. “However, it was certainly unusual for women to work in the fields of science and maths in the mid-19th century.
“More recently, she has also become an ambassador for women working in STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] today, as people increasingly recognise the important and varied roles women play in science.”
Back then though, Ada’s article – Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator – was not properly recognised (only her initials AAL were used on its publication) and it was soon forgotten; thanks in part to Victorian sexism but also to her later work on mathematical schemes for gambling, which she enjoyed pursuing at Epsom Racecourse. Sadly, these schemes were in vain, put her in financial peril and scandalised society.
But all was not lost. A century later, her notes were “rediscovered” by another celebrated Surrey resident and scientist, Alan Turing, during his groundbreaking work at Bletchley Park in 1940 on cracking the wartime Enigma code (the story of which was told in recent hit film, The Imitation Game).
“There is no doubt that, although we do not have the evidence that Ada was a mathematical genius like Turing, she understood the potential of Babbage’s invention; and had phenomenal intuition by asking the right questions, which were later picked up by Turing,” says Professor Ian Roulstone from the Department of Mathematics at the University of Surrey, one of the UK’s leading scientific and technological universities. “In another age, had she lived longer, she would no doubt have made a fundamental contribution to science. She had the right ideas and, although not fully appreciated at the time, historians are convinced she really understood more than Babbage.”
Turing is now celebrated by a statue at the Guildford campus of the university – and although there are no plans to remember Ada in the same way, when asked whether the university might consider an essay prize in her memory, Ian is enthusiastic.
“We are not planning a commemorative work, but I do like that idea,” he says. “However, I think Ada would be more than content with the legacy of promoting women in mathematics at our university, where 30 per cent of staff members are now female and 40 per cent of undergraduates are female.”
Computing is a relatively new discipline, but, as it has developed, computer scientists have seen increasing similarities between Ada’s work and their own. As a result, Ada is now celebrated by scientists worldwide on ‘Ada Lovelace Day’ each October and in an annual medal that bears her name, awarded by the British Computer Society; the first of which is on display at her former marital home, Horsley Towers in East Horsley (see the panel below).
Happy family life
Having married William King, at the age of 19 in 1835, with whom she went on to have three children, Ada appears to have had the support of her husband while working on her maths and exchanging ideas with the intellectuals of the day, such as Michael Faraday and Charles Dickens.
By then, William was one of the biggest landowners in England – thanks, no doubt, to the vast estates and wealth Ada had brought to the marriage, as well as powerful connections – her cousin was the Whig Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, who had the ear of the young Queen Victoria.
Three years after their marriage, William was made Viscount Ockham and third Earl Lovelace and thus she then came to be known (erroneously) as Countess Ada Lovelace. Then, in 1840, he was appointed Lord-Lieutenant of Surrey (a post he held until 1893) – the highest political and social position he could aspire to in the county – and bought East Horsley Park, along with 2,215 acres, befitting his wealth and status. Of great architectural significance, East Horsley Park (renamed Horsley Towers in the 1850s) had been built in 1828 by eminent architect Sir Charles Barry.
The couple continued to live at nearby Ockham Park until 1846, while they made changes to their new property. “These included building the house’s only bathroom, which Ada used every day to have hot baths, which her doctors prescribed for her worsening health,” adds Pam.
Though extended since, and now a busy hotel and wedding venue, many of Horsley Towers’ rooms remain little changed – such as the library, with its Spanish marble fireplace and magnificent views of the Surrey countryside, where Ada would have worked on her mathematics and entertained her children. Over the years, the family also transformed the locality into a model estate village and avidly bought up land, houses or cottages that came on the market in the area, which later gave East Horsley the name ‘Lovelace Village’.
Sadly, having already survived cholera, Ada died in 1852 of uterine cancer, aged only 36 – coincidentally, the same age as her father when he died in Greece in 1824.
But it appears her mother’s masterplan to remove any trace of Byron’s influence finally failed. Ada read his poetry and increasingly identified with him, and her last request was to be buried next to her father in a church in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. And echoing her father, whose Romantic works are still appreciated today, Ada’s notes are now heralded by scientists worldwide. Like father like daughter, it seems.
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Major exhibition about Ada Lovelace
Brought together for the first time in a new exhibition at London’s Science Museum, Ada Lovelace’s portraits, letters and notes are on display alongside the calculating machines she worked with. Difference Engine No. 1, a prototype built by Babbage (see main copy) and marvelled at by Ada, is included alongside the Analytical Engine, which was the main focus of Ada’s work and imagination.
As well as being able to read Ada’s personal letters from the British Library and Bodleian Library collections and discover more about her life, visitors can also explore her pioneering ideas through a digital display: Imagining the Analytical Engine. In addition, Babbage’s highly detailed drawings of the Analytical Engine, from the Science Museum’s Babbage Archive, are also on display.
The exhibition runs until March 2016 (see the website for opening times) and admission is free.
• For more information about the exhibition, see online at sciencemuseum.org.uk/adalovelace
The legacy lives on in Surrey
In December last year, Surrey education charity SATRO and the Mayor of Guildford hosted an event at the town’s historic Guildhall, attended by local business leaders, academics and members of the public, to discuss the legacy of Ada Lovelace and how to inspire innovation in the next generation.
The event featured a panel of women at the forefront of their careers and celebrated the achievements of females who have ‘broken the mould’ and proven how preconceptions of what people can and can’t achieve can be very wrong.
“Ada didn’t let the fact that she was a rare woman in the man’s world of 19th century science limit her aspirations,” says the CEO of SATRO, Dr Beccy Bowden. “She knew that she had a job to do, and simply got on with changing the world!
“Today, Surrey is a first-class hub of technology and, as a charity, we are lucky to be supported by so many organisations who share our passion for equipping young people with the skills and confidence they need to succeed.
“We know that many of our companies are struggling to recruit people with key skills – and that harnessing the creativity and innovation of our young people, both female and male, is vital to ensure that even more world-class breakthroughs and developments happen here in the future.”
• For more details about the events organised by SATRO, visit their website at satro.org.uk
The fascinating history of Horsley Towers...
Ada’s former home, the Grade II* listed East Horsley Place – now known as Horsley Towers – is currently a De Vere hotel and conference/wedding venue as well as a popular film location.
Built by Sir Charles Barry in 1828, the Lovelaces arrived in 1846, and added the impressive Great Hall a year later. It contains 150 coats of arms on panelling and a stained- glass window, but the main feature is the original cantilever roof, where the wooden beams were bent into shape through steaming them by hand. The Byron family motto (‘Crede Byron’) appears on one of the beams.
After Ada’s death, William built two tall, steeply-roofed towers in his distinctive flint and red brickwork, and in 1850 added a chapel (available for blessings) and cloisters, which were often used by women for exercise in inclement weather.
In the 20th century, Horsley Towers had another famous owner, Sir Thomas Sopwith, an English aviation pioneer. He gave his name to the Sopwith Camel aeroplane, more than 5,000 of which were built for the allied forces in World War One by his company in Kingston.
In 1926, Horsley Towers was sold and became a girls’ school for ten years, after which it was bought by the British Electricity Authority and then by De Vere in 1993.
Most recently, its courtyard was used in a prison scene during the film Suffragette and as a location in Alice Through the Looking Glass, starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter, due to be released in May 2016.
“The historic parts of the building are always popular with film directors and for photo shoots too,” says the venue manager Benjamin Ringer. “Last year, we also had more than 78 weddings here as well.”