Ada Lovelace: A Computational Thinker

Ada Lovelace: A Computational Thinker

Background:Child level biography TBD + YouTube “The Brilliant Life of Ada Lovelace

Family Facts

  • Father George Gordon, Lord Byron, “mad, bad, and dangerous”, poet, died age 36
  • Mother AnnaBella socialite, intellectual, studied math, “Princess of Parallelograms”
  • Half-sister, by Byron’s half-sister, later adopted by AnnaBella
  • husband William King, Lord Lovelace, nice guy, architect/developer
  • Son Byron (went to sea), daughter AnnaBella(raised Arabian horses), son Ralph (managed estate)
  • 10 living descendents
  • Health: often energetic, frequently sickly, bedridden with measles, cervical cancer at age 36, buried near Lord Byron

Ada’s Education

  • AnnaBella ruled: “mathematics, not poetry”, “control your imagination”
  • Best tutors money could buy
    • Augustus de Morgan, famous for law NOT (a OR b) = (NOT a) AND (Not b) symbolic logic
    • Mary Somerville, prolific science summarizer, philosopher
    • Independently Wrote imaginings of mechanical flying things
  • Ada toured Europe but remained “very British”
  • rumored teenage fling, tried to elope
  • AnnaBella introduced her to her adult contemporaries, took her to London
  • Ada met the Difference Engine at a Charles Babbage soiree
  • Lifetime friendship developed with 20 years older Babbage

Ada’s Imagination

  • What attracted her to math — was it equations, diagrams, puzzles, science applications, “truth”?
  • What attracted her to mechanical systems — action, stories, math, freedom?
  • Was she a “nerd”? did her image harm her life?
  • How did she survive misogyny of tutors? “women not up to math?, “too much excitement”, “harmed her health”, …
  • How was she affected by Romanticism?

Two Geniuses: Lovelace and Babbage

Who was Babbage?

  • Wealthy, no job, scrounged for grants, no deliverables
  • Industrial theorist, originated operations engineering, studied systems, theorized about automation and jobs
  • Invented cow-catcher, postage stamps, tables of logarithms, …
  • Loved parties, hated street musicians
  • Friends with Darwin, Dickens, and Cambridge University cohort
  • Worked in notations nobody understood, couldn’t find precise components, always improving on innovations, but one version exists (I saw it!)
  • Bad technology timing, poor manager, dreamer
  • Sparked 17 year old Ada interest in his machine dreams and models

170 years later, a Difference Engine at Computer History Museum

Pattern-driven Jacquard Loom Suggests Analytic Engine

YouTube demo of card-driven loom

  • Cards, rods, wheels spin patterns (hint of programs)
  • Punched cards used for data by Hollerith circa 1890 then IBM records for Nazis in WW II
  • Punched cards held programs until 1970s
  • Novice programmer lesson, 4 day wait for program rejected due to punch error

Ada Writes the 1st something

  • Babbage talks in Italy, mathematician writes a summary in French, ready to publish
  • Babbage asks Ada to translate, she expands with notes
  • She chooses Bernoulli numbers for example (sums of powers of integers)
  • Babbage and Lovelace check each other’s work
  • Women cannot publish, so author is “A.A.L”
  • Ada suggests to Babbage that she take over the Analytic Engine business as manager while Babbage engineers and builds, finally. Offer rejected.
  • Becomes interested in electricity, optics, and rainbows, praised by Faraday
  • Ada turns to betting on horses, pawns family jewels, leaves scandals

Ada’s Influence grows

  • She claimed “The Analytic Engine can do only what it’s told, cannot originate”
    1940s cryptographer and mathematician Alan Turing takes on “Ada’s Objection” and asks “Can computers think?”
  • 1970s International language for safety-critical systems is named Ada, now runs major aircraft, trains, regulated systems
  • USA then British adopt Ada as hero and model for STEM programs that raise money, “Finding Ada” October Ada Lovelace day newsletter, podcast
  • Lovelace papers public at Bodline library at Oxford, Difference Engine at British Museum

Ada’s Contributions

  • (Universality) “the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves” . The Analytic Engine can operate on not only numbers but also music, and symbols. (but how could she foretell modern “packets of data representing persons”
  • (Point of View) Ada wanted to create a “calculus of neurons” from knowledge about the brain and thinking,
    but could not imagine “fake news” and “political lies”.
  • Defined key ideas of programming
    • (Basic control structure of programming) The Analytic Engine could compute in loops under control of variables on punched cards rather than long sequences of operations
    • (Optimization) Her concept of loops could improve the programs for existing Jacquard looms.
  • (Originality and Exploration) The Analytic Engine assists, does what it’s told, cannot originate. However, assisting a scientist can lead to discovery and insight into the problem and solutions.
  • (Cooperation Wins) Lovelace brought a clear exposition to Babbage’s rambling models. Both spoke “math-ese” and enjoyed contemporary formulations of physical problems and theories. They corresponded freely without email or social media. Neither needed money to live on. Neither had the burdens of a job, e.g. meetings, colleagues. Both had meaningful family structures. Their minds abstracted differently, based on computational thinking. They partnered well.
  • (Multi-talented) Lovelace combined mature skills in math, language, abstraction, , explanation, calculation, carefulness, …
  • Summary: Ada Lovelace was an extraordinary Computational Thinker!

Readings and Videos

  1. Brief biography, emphasizing her work, mentioning gender issues
    Video YouTube “The Brilliant Life of Ada Lovelace”
  2. Babbage Difference Engine, imaginary then, cloned now.
    Video Babbage Engine at Computer History Museum, Mountain View CA
  3. Demonstration of the Jacquard loom
    Video Jacquard loom demonstration YouTube
  4. International Celebration, Ada Love lace Day, honoring women in STEM
    Event “Finding Ada October event in London for Women in STEM
  5. Novel “Enchantress of Numbers, by Jennifer Chiaverini. Including many letters, embellished portraits of William King and other family, mostly historical.
    Fiction Jennifer Chiaverini book site and blog
  6. Deeper story of technical accomplishments of Lovelace and Babbage
    Essay “Untangling the tale of Ada Lovelace by Stephen Wolfram
  7. A graphic novel heavily footnoted, with Wikipedia back story
    Fiction “Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage” by Sydney Padua
Picture of Ada Lovelace

Long Quotations

Source: “Untangling Ada” by Stephen Wolfram

Good Work Habits Matter

“My Dear Babbage. I am in much dismay at having got into so amazing a quagmire & botheration with these Numbers, that I cannot possibly get the thing done today. …. I am now going out on horseback. Tant mieux.”

Later she told Babbage: “I have worked incessantly, & most successfully, all day. You will admire the Table & Diagram extremely. They have been made out with extreme care, & all the indices most minutely & scrupulously attended to.” Then she added that William (or “Lord L.” as she referred to him) “is at this moment kindly inking it all over for me. I had to do it in pencil…”

A Practical Proposal — Rejected

“Your affairs have been, & are, deeply occupying both myself and Lord Lovelace…. And the result is that I have plans for you…” Then she proceeds to ask, “If I am to lay before you in the course of a year or two, explicit & honorable propositions for executing your engine … would there be any chance of allowing myself … to conduct the business for you; your own undivided energies being devoted to the execution of the work …”

“Enchantress of” NUMBER

Babbage wrote “Enchantress of Number” and “my dear and much admired Interpreter”. (

Does “Enchantress of Number” differ from “Enchantress of NumberS”?

Mathematical Points of View

“It does not appear to me that cerebral matter need be more unmanageable to mathematicians than sidereal & planetary matter & movements; if they would but inspect it from the right point of view. I hope to bequeath to the generations a Calculus of the Nervous System.”


“We may consider the engine as the material and mechanical representative of analysis, and that our actual working powers in this department of human study will be enabled more effectually than heretofore to keep pace with our theoretical knowledge of its principles and laws, through the complete control which the engine gives us over the executive manipulation of algebraical and numerical symbols.”

A little later, she explains that punched cards are how the Analytical Engine is controlled, and then makes the classic statement that

“the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves” .

Computational Originality

“The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform…. Its province is to assist us in making available what we are already acquainted with.”

(Later referred to by Alan Turing, circa 1934, as Lovelace’s Objection

Mathematician Stephen Wolfram’s Tribute

Note: Wolfram developed Mathematica, a symbolic math system, now extended to many applications and an app, Wolfram Alpha.

The story of Ada and Babbage has many interesting themes. It is a story of technical prowess meeting abstract “big picture” thinking. It is a story of friendship between old and young. It is a story of people who had the confidence to be original and creative.

It is also a tragedy. A tragedy for Babbage, who lost so many people in his life, and whose personality pushed others away and prevented him from realizing his ambitions. A tragedy for Ada, who was just getting started in something she loved when her health failed.

We will never know what Ada could have become. Another Mary Somerville, famous Victorian expositor of science? A Steve-Jobs-like figure who would lead the vision of the Analytical Engine? Or an Alan Turing, understanding the abstract idea of universal computation?

That Ada touched what would become a defining intellectual idea of our time was good fortune. Babbage did not know what he had; Ada started to see glimpses and successfully described them.

… But the challenge is to be enough of an Ada to grasp what’s there—or at least to find an Ada who does. But at least now I think I have an idea of what the original Ada born 200 years ago today was like: a fitting personality on the road to universal computation and the present and future achievements of computational thinking.

Susan L. Geerhart, for YC OLLI course on “Women of Imagination” with Carol Hammond covering oMary Shelley and the book/play/movie “Frankenstei”. Other topics include: Count Buffon, Thomas Jefferso, and the American “Degeneracy Theory”; the Tambora volcano eruption of 1815 and the ensuing climate disruptions; the beginning of the industrial age; and characteristics of imagination and creativity. October 31 2018-December 2018 Yavapai College OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute), Prescott Arizona

One reply on “Ada Lovelace: A Computational Thinker”


Compute the sum of 1 + 2 +3…+N

where N is a nonnegative integer

Exercise: Do the Additions

when N=10
1+ 2 +3+4+5+6+7+8+9+10

= ???

Three Ways to Program

“Spaghetti” Code circa 1960


SUMX ::=0

I ::=1


SumX ::= SumX+I

I ::=I+1

GO TO Loop

Done: Print SumX

Note: SumX ::= means “change the value of SumX to the value of the expression after the =, called an ‘assignment'”



SumX ::=0

FOR I=1 TO N By 1

[ SumX::=SumX+I ]

Print SumX

Note: FOR means repeat with I=1 then increment BY 1 until I exceeds N each time doing the code inside the brackets



IF I<1 THEN 0 ELSE I+SumX(I – 1)



by induction (Magic)


PRINT (N * (N+1)) / 2

Note: * is multiplication, / is division

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