My book ‘Ada Lovelace: The Countess who Dreamed in Numbers’ celebrates the woman who foresaw the age of computers
Story By Shanee Edwards | Photos by Maria Martin
Computers run nearly every aspect of our lives, so it’s hard to imagine a time without all the technology we rely on. But a woman born in England two centuries ago, when steam trains were the Teslas of their day, saw the coming of the computer age nearly 100 years before it happened. That woman’s name is Ada Lovelace, and my first novel tells her remarkable story.
Ada was the daughter of Romantic poet Lord Byron and Lady Annabella Byron. Her parents divorced when she was just a baby due to Lord Byron’s scandalous sexual exploits and gambling debts. Annabella was so worried Ada would inherit her father’s grand imagination (and corrupt morals) that she only allowed Ada to study mathematics as a child. And Ada was never, ever allowed to see her famous father or even speak of him.
Such a sheltered upbringing became an asset, however, when teenage Ada met inventor Charles Babbage, who was as brilliant and eccentric as inventors come. Inspired by the Jacquard loom, which used punched cards to guide threads for weaving intricate patterns into silk brocade fabric, Babbage began to work on plans for a machine called the Analytical Engine. He also intended to employ punched cards, but instead of guiding patterns in fabric they would “program” the machine to perform algorithms seemingly on its own. The machine was even to have its own printer. Today, the Analytical Engine is considered a prototype to the modern computer.
While the Industrial Revolution was quickly sweeping through Europe and America in the 19th century, the idea of a “programmable machine” left the most intelligent men of science baffled. Even the Royal Science Society was skeptical about a machine that could seemingly “think” (i.e., perform operations without human assistance) and worried it was anti-Christian.
That’s where Ada came in. Not only did she see the value of such a machine, her predictions for its uses far exceeded Babbage’s understanding of its potential. Ada was the only person of her time period to fully comprehend the machine’s endless possibilities and to see how profoundly important the computer would eventually become.
Ada published her own description of the machine and its capabilities in 1843 (while still in her twenties), including her prediction that such a machine could do far more than calculate numbers — even create music or poetry. Most importantly, she was the first person to ever publish an algorithm for a machine to carry out.
Because she was woman, Ada was not allowed to put her name on the publication, as no legitimate man of intellect would take it seriously at that time. But her initials “AAL,” for Augusta Ada Lovelace, did appear on the work. Though three little letters may seem like a small victory, at the time it was a huge achievement for both women and science.
To research this book I traveled to Oxford University in England, where the Byron Estate granted me permission to read Ada’s handwritten letters. It was an exhilarating experience to peek into her world, see her messy handwriting that crisscrossed the page, and understand her just a little more. In one letter to her mother, Ada wrote that she believed she’d one day be famous — but only after her death. She was right.
Writing about Silicon Beach for this magazine, I have the opportunity to speak with many modern women in tech, from coders to UX managers to women who run their own tech startups. I often can’t help but wonder what Ada, if she could magically be transported here today, would think of Playa Vista and its wealth of technical resources. Would she be the CEO of her own tech company? Would she delight in our smartphones and design an app that creates poetry or music? Would she be a game designer or work in the VR realm? I’m certain she would she find a community here. I’d like to think Playa Vista would fully embrace Ada’s revolutionary ideas, unbridled passion and fierce ingenuity without thinking twice about something as insignificant as her gender.