Computer science: Enchantress of abstraction

Richard Holmes in Nature:

EnchantThe bicentenary of Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, heralds the critical reassessment of a remarkable figure in the history of Victorian science. Ada Lovelace (as she is now known) was 27 years old and married with 3 children when she published the first account of a prototype computer and its possible applications in 1843. Her 20,000-word paper was appended as seven Notes to a translation of a descriptive article, Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage, Esq. Lovelace's account was the fruit of one of the most intriguing collaborations in the annals of science: her friendship with Charles Babbage, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, UK, and inventor of the landmark analytical engine. The Notes eventually brought Lovelace both acclaim and notoriety. Babbage himself described her unforgettably to the physicist Michael Faraday as “that Enchantress who has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and has grasped it with a force that few masculine intellects (in our own country at least) could have exerted over it”. The exact nature of that force and enchantment continues to puzzle historians of science, not least because Lovelace's correspondence, largely archived at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, has not been fully published (see selections by Dorothy Stein in Ada (MIT Press, 1985) and Betty A. Toole in Ada, Enchantress of Numbers; Strawberry, 1992). What has emerged is the hitherto unsuspected range of Lovelace's interests and contacts, which linked the worlds of Victorian science and literature.

Lovelace was the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron. She never met her father, self-exiled in Italy and Greece, but inherited much of his rebellious spirit and something of his unstable genius. She directed it towards science, declaring: “I do not believe that my father was (or ever could have been) such a Poet as I shall be an Analyst (& Metaphysician); for with me the two go together indissolubly”.She was brought up with pathological severity by her mother, the brilliant Lady Annabella Byron — dubbed “the Princess of Parallelograms” for her own fascination with mathematics — and a squadron of female advisers whom Lovelace christened the Furies. Forbidden to read her father's poetry, young Ada was encouraged to study mathematics, astronomy and music, and allowed to design flying machines, play the harp and commune with her cat, Puff. In her early twenties she began to study the new calculus under Augustus De Morgan, a proponent of Boolean algebra, who described her as potentially more promising than any 'senior wrangler', or first-class Cambridge maths student.

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