The Poetic Science and Turmoil of Ada Lovelace’s Mind

The Poetic Science and Turmoil of Ada Lovelace’s Mind

Natasha sheldon - April 19, 2018

Augusta Ada, Countess of Lovelace, was a celebrity from the day she was born on December 10, 1815. The only legitimate daughter of the notorious poet Lord Byron and his straight-laced wife, Annabelle Milbanke, the little girl was immediately caught in the glare of her father’s fame- and overshadowed by his notoriety. For Ada’s parents separated when she was just a few weeks old, and Byron was castigated as depraved and incestuous by Lady Byron as she attempted to justify leaving her husband. As for Ada, she grew up; her mother closely scrutinized her for any Byronic traits.

Mathematics was one of the disciplines prescribed for Ada to practice to regiment her and keep her mind well away from fanciful and rebellious thoughts. Ada embraced and excelled with numbers, and they came to be a focus rather than a distraction for her suppressed mind. She continued her studies into adulthood, and in 1843, at the age of just 28, wrote what was to be the world’s first published computer program. However, despite all her training, Ada’s willful and Byronic side could not be suppressed – which led to a marriage of logic and vision which Ada herself was to dub “poetic science.”

The Poetic Science and Turmoil of Ada Lovelace’s Mind
Engraving of Ada Lovelace as a child, from a drawing by Frank Stone, 1832. Wikimedia Commons.

Forming Ada

A woman leaving her husband in the early nineteenth century was virtually unprecedented. However, Lady Byron (the former Annabella Milbanke) managed to do just that and keep her social position by cultivating a reputation for Victorian piety and morals even before the era began. During their short marriage, Annabella had struggled with Byron’s character, finally attributing his drunkenness, erratic behavior and his strange attachment to his half-sister, Augusta to illness. When his doctor assured her that her husband was perfectly well and sane, Annabella felt she had no choice but to separate from him.

To keep her money, her reputation and her child who, under the laws of the time should have stayed with Byron, Annabella had to play a careful game. She ensured the world knew what a corrupting influence on her infant daughter, Ada, Bryon would be, while portraying herself as a loving, attentive mother- even though the little girl was brought up by her grandmother, Judith Milbanke. Ada became a pawn in the battle between her parents; the “inheritor of our bitterness” as Byron put it.

Annabella was determined to root out any resemblance to Byron in Ada. So all her lessons were designed to regulate her mind. Poetry was off the curriculum while music, languages, and mathematics were firmly on it. Young Ada excelled at them all. However, her tutors could not suppress her imagination. When she began to build palaces out of bricks that were designed to teach her, the game was swiftly stopped. At thirteen, while on a trip to Europe, her fascination with the flight of birds led to the design of a flying machine. These were the first signs of how Ada married her imagination and rational mind-the beginnings of what she dubbed her “poetic science.”

The Poetic Science and Turmoil of Ada Lovelace’s Mind
Annabella, Lady Byron, around 1815. Wikimedia Commons.

However, Ada’s education was also designed to mold her moral character. She was made to feel that any natural childish tendency to question, test or rebel was a sign of the immorality of her father. She grew to be supersensitive towards these ‘faults’ as she tried to win her mother’s love and approval. However, she never quite mastered them. However, if the desire to please failed, there were always ‘the furies’ as Ada dubbed them, a close and loyal band of her mother’s friends who dutifully and gleefully reported any hint of Byronic temperament to Lady Byron.

It was the furies that alerted Annabella of her daughter’s near elopement with one of her tutors when she was 18. As a result, a desperate Annabella placed Ada in the hands of Dr. William King- a devote Christian, lunatic asylum manager and doctor who prescribed trigonometry specifically as a way of purging Ada’s mind of all ‘objectionable thoughts.” Dr. King’s method seems to work. More than ever, Ada was determined to dedicate her mind to reason. Finally, on July 8, 1835, she made a most reasoned marriage to William, Lord King, who in 1838 became the Earl of Lovelace.

The Poetic Science and Turmoil of Ada Lovelace’s Mind
Daguerreotype of Charles Babbage between 1847 and 1851 by Antoine Claudet. Wikimedia Commons.

“The Enchantress of Number”

Ada first made the acquaintance of Charles Babbage in 1833. Babbage had designed a calculating machine, which he called a Difference Engine. Two feet high and composed of 2000 brass wheels and cogs, the device produced remarkably accurate calculations with just the turn of a wheel. The machine fascinated Ada, and she maintained contact with Babbage. Meanwhile, the man who would become known as “The Father of the Computer” continued to develop his concept into the more complex “Analytical Engine,” which, through a series of punched cards could be ‘programmed’ to perform multiple calculations.

By now, Babbage – despite being frustrated in his attempts to gaining support for his machine in England – was attracting attention from the rest of the world. In 1840, he gave a lecture on the device in Turin, prompting Italian mathematician L.F. Menabrea to write an article on Babbage’s engine, which he published in 1842 in French. Babbage had never written down the theory behind his machine. So, in 1843, he asked Ada if she would translate the paper.

Ada had, by now, been married for eight years and had three children. However, she had continued with her mathematical studies, as a means of steadying her impulses and for her own pleasure. She agreed to take on the task. However, the result was no mere translation. Instead, it formed an entirely new paper that not only explained Babbage’s concept but also expanded upon it and explored how the analytical machine could be broadened beyond application to mathematics. Using the system of Bernoulli numbers, Ada illustrated how Babbage’s card system could be simplified by the application of ‘cycles” and “cycles of cycles’ that would reduce the number of “operation cards” used to program the machine.

The Poetic Science and Turmoil of Ada Lovelace’s Mind
Charles Babbage’s Difference engine No. 1 1832 in Science Museum London. Wikimedia Commons.

This process formed just part of the resulting paper, “The Sketch of the Analytical Machine ‘ which was published in 1843 in Taylors Scientific Memoirs. The paper was anonymously at Ada’s behest, with only the initials A.A.L hinting at the identity of the author. Ada’s system of Bernoulli numbers, still in use today is often cited as the first published example of a computer programme. It also led to Babbage dubbing her his “Enchantress of Number.”

However, it was not Ada’s mathematical skills that made her paper remarkable. These, according to one of her biographers Dorothy Stein, have been somewhat overrated, as some of her calculations containing schoolgirl errors. Instead, it was her vision of what the Analytical Engine could do that that made her paper remarkable. Ada was able to see the potential of the machine, state how she would improve it and outline how she believed it could be used in other disciplines. In short, she was visualizing the Analytical Engine as a computer. Ada was applying her imagination to science. She had found a rational application for the vision she inherited from her father. However, poetic science was not her only Byronic trait.

The Poetic Science and Turmoil of Ada Lovelace’s Mind
Ada King, Countess of Lovelace by Alfred Chalon, 1840. Wikimedia Commons

Byron’s Daughter

Ada began to increasingly to break with her mother’s conditioning and began to exhibit more of the long-suppressed traits she had inherited from her father. For a start, she broke with convention by moving beyond the home to become a ‘professional’ person- something Ada dearly wanted and believed she could achieve after the reception of “The Sketch of the Analytical Machine.‘ She believed the paper marked the beginning of her scientific and mathematical career. Her fledgling projects included studies of brain neurology and more unconventionally mesmerism. However, she derailed these scientific pursuits with her less positive Byronic impulses.

Ada also began to form some unconventional but innocent relationships with men who shared her intellectual and not so intellectual interests. For Ada was prone to the Byron mania for gambling, which had ruined her grandfather- and very nearly ruined her. Ada formed a syndicate of friends and devised a mathematical system for betting at the races. It failed badly, leading to considerable debt for all parties. Ada’s husband and her mother were obliged to bail her out of her debts. They were also forced to help other members of the syndicate to avoid the scandal becoming public.

As Ada’s mental and physical health began to decline, she began to lean on the drugs and alcohol- as did her father before her. This substance abuse was aided and abetted by her physician, Dr. Locock, who actively prescribed their use. Locock instructed Ada to take laudanum, opium and to try the ‘claret system,’ which involved imbibing large quantities of wine to steady her nerves. Ada found this such an agreeable solution to her ailments and problems that she discussed with Locock the inclusion of gin as one of her remedies. The drug and alcohol-induced states that resulted from this ‘medication’ resulted in musings in letters that would have done her father proud.

The Poetic Science and Turmoil of Ada Lovelace’s Mind
Portrait of Ada Lovelace, painted by Henry Philips in 1852 when she was dying. Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, in 1852, Ada was diagnosed with uterine cancer. She lingered painfully for several months before passing away on November 27th, 1852 at just 36- the same age as her father. Florence Nightingale later claimed: “she could not possibly have lived so long, were it not for the tremendous vitality of the brain, that would not die.” However, Ada herself believed death was denied her because she had to make one last confession to her husband, William. This confession, according to Benjamin Woolfe, was the admission of adultery with her close friend John Crosse to whom she was to bequeath her father’s ring.

Whether or not this was the case is uncertain. However, whatever the revelation was, it was sufficient to distance William from her and leave the door open for her mother to take over. Annabella took her daughter’s illness as one last opportunity to ‘redeem’ her. She cut the dying Ada off from all of her more reprehensible friends and by her own admission, mercilessly urged her daughter to make deathbed confessions and gestures of repentance. However, Ada- and Byron- had the last laugh. For after years of having her poetic side suppressed, Ada was laid to rest in peace-next to her father in the Bryon family vault.


Where do we get this stuff? What are our sources?

Chambers Biographical Dictionary, ed Magnus Magnusson. Chambers Harrap Publishers. 1993

The First Computer Programmer Was This 19th-Century Noblewoman, Claire Linic, OMG Facts.

Untangling the Tale of Ada Lovelace, Stephen Wolfram, Stephen Wolfram, Blog, December 10, 2015

Ada Lovelace: Bride of Science. Romance, Reason and Byron’s Daughter. Benjamin Woolfe. Pan Books.