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May 03, 2020 Sunday 12:25:07 PM IST

The Story of Ada Lovelace, Prophetess of the Digital Era

Creative Living

The world progresses based on the vision of great prophets. They are passionate and undergo pangs to bring forth their concepts against all odds. Clarity is required to turn any vision into realty and one could stay assured that a perfected concept will never go futile. It will sprout, branch out and bear fruits at its designated time.  Nobody in the world is equipped enough to stop a mature idea from flourishing! However, it may demand from the prophets the undying endurance of a farmer, who waits patiently for the seeds he had sown to sprout.
Technological progress is not an exception. Here we consider the onset of the digital era, which happened in the early nineteenth century. We revisit the story of a prophetic duo who foresaw the eventual digital revolution and prepared the way for the same. Charles Babbage, the father of computer hardware, has etched his name in the books of technological history. An unsung heroine of this disruption was Augusta Ada King, the countess of Lovelace in England. 

Women of the Victorian era were not expected to contribute anything significant to the development of science and technology! Thus her contributionsto the development of the digital technologies were widely overlooked. Let us revisit the birth moments of the digital technology and appreciate the role Ada Lovelace played as the prophetess of the digital era.

The Stuff of Ada
Lord Byron,  Ada’s father,  was one of the most celebrated romantic poets of Victorian era, who lived a life of self-indulgence, lust, and subjective imaginations. He presented himself as a “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” person to her mother Annabella Milbanke. Lord Byron affectionately called her the“Princess of the Parallelogram”,a person obsessed with discipline, order and objective facts. Reflecting over her traits Lord Byron write in his epic satire, Don Juan: “Her favorite sciencewas…mathematical…her thoughts were theorems, her words a problem…she was a walking calculation…in short…a prodigy!”

Her parents were the inverses of each other and Ada was born to these opposites in 1815. Understandably, soon after the birth of Ada, her parents got separated. Her mother was all out to erase any “mad influence” of Lord Byron on Ada. Lord Byron, on the other hand, was fond of little Ada, whom he could never meet again. He implored on his deathbed: “Oh, my poor dear child! … my dear Ada! My God, could I have seen her! Give her my blessing.”

Ada was also put through rigorous training in mathematics, not leaving any space for romantic poetry, lest she should go astray! The poor child had no option than to dive deep into the ocean of mathematics, which she eventually started enjoying.
However, irrespective of all efforts of her mother to wean away from poetic indulgences, Ada seems to have eventually asserted herself as her father’s daughter. In a letter to her mother reads:  “You will not concede me philosophical poetry. Invert the order! Will you give me poetical philosophy, poetical science?”

Out of nascent desire to reconcile with the father-element in her, Ada invented a new breed of science, thePoetical Science, which eventually became her trademark approach to science. She visualized science as the poetry emanating from nature, whose harmonies were manifested through the mystical expressions of mathematical equations!
Ada’s Endeavors

As a child, Ada was fond of machines. To fly just like birds, was part of her dreams. She worked all alone towards this goal.To understand the mechanics of flight, she studied the anatomy of birds. She understood that the wings of a flying object have to be in proportion to the size of its body and hoped that a steam engine could power the flight. She took care to compile her insights in her book Flyology. Ada was a child of twelve years, when the book was published (1827)! In fact, Ada’s design preceded the aerial steam carriage, patented by William Henson and John Stringfellow (1842).

Ada was a sickly child. She caught the measles as she was 13, which left her paralyzed and bed-ridden for a complete year. She could walk again but the disease left indelible marks on her health. Throughout her life Ada suffered from unexplained illnesses with symptoms ranging from stomach pain, severe abdominal pain, vomiting, muscle pain and weakness, heart palpitations, epilepsy, double-vision, sensory loss, delirium, mania, and psychotic-like behavior and blurred vision.It was not an easy life.

Mathematics was her medicine and science was her solace. They kept her sound and sane. She later writes to her husband, Mr. King: “nothing but a very close and intense application to subjects of a scientific nature now seems at all to keep my imagination from running wild, or to stop the void which seems to be left in my mind.” 

Ada was directed towards symbolic logic by Augustus De Morgan, a leading mathematician of the time. De Morgan recognized her mathematical capabilities and said: Had Ada been a man, she would have had the potential to become “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence.” Of course, De Morgan shared the typical prejudice over woman of Victorian era England! But he appreciated the mathematician in Ada.

Edifying Companionship

A genuine companion helps realize own capabilities and allow exceptional synergy of ideas. Ada was blessed with such an edifying companion. It was, in fact, not her own husband, who was gracious enough to allow her to pursue her passion for science and technology. It was another mathematician, named Charles Babbage, whom she came across two years ahead of her marriage with Mr. King. Ada was a 17-year-old girl, when she met Charles Babbage, who was 42. They developed an intellectual comradeship that would change her life irrevocably. Charles admired Ada as “the enchantress of numbers” and Ada revered him as a break-through inventor of the first ever computing machine, the Difference Engine. Together, they scripted a radical shift in the history of technology and heralded humankind to the digital era.

Difference Engine of Charles Babbage was a mechanical device that did basic arithmetic operations like addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. He could attract support of the British government towards the construction of the first difference engine. However, as typical with an inventor, Babbage soon moved over to a better concept of Analytical Engine. It was a general purpose computing machine that had all the elements of a modern computer, including an arithmetical unit, conditional branching and loops, and integrated memory. Unhappy over Babbage’s inconsistency at work, the government withdrew its support to his project, pushing him into a bad financial crisis. 

It was the time Ada stepped in and started writing vehemently in support of the Analytical Engine project of Charles Babbage. With full appreciation of the remarkable potential of the proposed engine, she went on popularizing the concepts behind it. She was assigned the task of translating an article by Luigi Menabra, an Italian engineer, over the capabilities of the Analytical Engine. Ada not only translated Menabra’s paper, but also addedseven original notes of her own to it, making the document thrice as large as its first version on publication. In her seventh note (Note G), she incorporated a simple program to compute the Bernoulli Numbers using the Analytical Engine, which was later on came to be known as the first published computer program!  Ada writes: “I want to put in something about Bernoulli’s Number, in one of my Notes, as an example of how an explicit function may be worked out by the engine, without having been worked out by human head and hands first.”That marked the birth moment of the computer software!

In short, Charles Babbage developed concepts for the digital computer hardware and Ada Lovelace developed the first software for that computer. Together they heralded the onset of the digital era, which drives the advancement of technology of the day.No wonder that Ada Lovelace is celebrated as the figurehead of women in technology!













Dr. Varghese Panthalookaran

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