Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Empress of Numbers: The Life of Augusta Ada Byron King

My daughter! with they name this song begun
My daughter! with they name thus much shall end
I see thee not, - I hear thee not, - but none
Can be so wrapt in thee; thou art the friend
To whom the shadows of far years extend:
Albeit my brow thou never should'st behold,
My voice shall with thy future visions blend,
And reach into they heart, - when mine is cold, -
A token and a tone, even from thy father's mould.
George, Lord Byron

March 24, 2009 is Ada, Countess of Lovelace Day. So to celebrate, over 1,000 people will be blogging about Ada today. Below is my little contribution to the effort.
From childhood, Augusta Ada Byron's mother tried her damndest to make sure that her only child was nothing like her father, Lord Byron. Ada would be brought up to revere science, mathematics and reason. Any poetic impulses would be squashed out of her, but despite her mother's best efforts, Ada Bryon King, Countess of Lovelace grew up to be more like her father than her mother ever dreamed.

She was born of the misalliance between George Gordon Byron, the rock and roll poet of the regency and Annabella Milbanke, the 'princess of parallelograms,' on December 10, 1815. The unhappy couple met in 1812, when Bryon woke up to find that he had become the most famous man in Britain on the publication of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Women flocked to him, including Lady Caroline Lamb, with whom he embarked on a scandalous affair. Annabella took a different tact, she seemed indifferent to him, played hard to get, which intrigued Byron. He proposed to her, and she turned him down the first time, but unfortunately for both of them, he was convinced to propose again.

On the surface the wedding of her parents made sense, Bryon was perpetually broke, and Annabella was not only an heiress but related to the Lambs, her aunt Elizabeth had married the 1st Viscount Melbourne, making William Lamb and his wife Lady Caroline her cousins. But it was a miss-match from the start, Annabella had decided that she would reform Byron from his more wicked impulses, and at first Byron was willing. But the demons that drove him led him to drink too much, and to abusive behavior. At first, Annabella thought that perhaps Byron and his friend John Hobhouse had killed someone, but soon she discovered the awful truth, Bryon and his half-sister Augusta Leigh had been lovers. Annabella had her family physician examine Byron to see if he was mad, but she was told that he was perfectly sane, that his actions did not come from a diseased mind, she left him taking their newborn daughter with her. Byron never saw his daughter again.

Byron signed the deed of separation in April of 1816, and soon took off for the continent in the company of Shelley and his wife, and Mary Shelley's step-sister Claire Clairmont. He next returned to Britain eight years later in a coffin. While Ada was growing up, the famous portrait of her father in Albanian dress was hung over the mantelpiece at her grandparents' home, covered with a green cloth. She was not to see her father's face until she was twenty years old and a married woman. Even though the funeral cortege passed by the family estate, Ada didn't attend her father's funeral, although Lady Byron was completely distraught.

Instead, Ada who was an unruly child, full of high spirits, was confined to the house with her governess and her pet cat (she had inherited her love of animals from her father), while she studied science, mathematics, and foreign languages. From childhood, Ada suffered from bouts of ill health. At the age of 8, she had headaches that obscured her vision. At the age of 14, she was paralyzed for a year after a bout of measles; it wasn't until she was sixteen that she was able to walk again. Like her father, she was prone to plumpness, something she struggled with all her life, since she adored food. When she was 16, she attempted to run away with her tutor, a young man who had been hired to further her studies. Ada and her mother had a fraught relationship. Annabella was not the most maternal of creatures; she seemed to regard her daughter more as an experiment than an actual child, someone to practice her theories on. She was shocked that despite her best efforts, Ada should turn out to be rebellious teenager.

When she finally made her debut at court, all eyes were upon her, wanting to meet the daughter of the infamous Lord Byron. In many ways, Ada was the first celebrity child. If she had lived today, her every move would have been followed in the tabloids. She made the rounds of various parties where she was known to shock people by the bluntness of her speech and her willingness to discuss topics not normally talked about in polite society. She first met Charles Babbage at the age of 17 at a social gathering through her friend Mary Sommerville, a noted researcher and scientist. Babbage had displayed his difference engine in his home, and Ada went to see it again and again, fascinated by the ideas behind it. But it wasn't until 1843 that they began to work together.

At the age of 20, Ada married William King, 8th Baron King, and later 1st Earl of Lovelace, primarily to escape the watchful eyes of her mother. It helped that William seemed fascinated by her, and was willing to allow her to continue her scientific studies. Ada hobnobbed with all the best scientists of the day, including besides Babbage and Mary Sommerville, people like Sir David Brewster and Michael Faraday, and writers such as Charles Dickens. She also spent time studying phrenology and mesmerism, two interests of her mother's, but Ada's interest was much more scientifically based than her mother. Ada had already surpassed her mother in her understanding of mathematics.
But first came motherhood, Ada gave birth to her first son Byron in 1836, followed by a daughter Annabella in 1837 and a son Ralph in 1839. In 1841, Ada finally met her cousin Medora Leigh, the youngest child of August Leigh and possibly Byron. Already, Ada had gleaned the truth through reading her father's poetry, but she blamed Augusta for the relationship not Byron much to her mother's disgust. Still the knowledge sent Ada into a sort of nervous breakdown for a time.

Ada decided that her life's work was to combine the disparate natures of her parents, the imagination and the reason, to science. She called it 'poetic science.' "Religion to me is science, and science is religion," she wrote, "I am more than ever now the bride of science." This she achieved with her work on Babbage's Analytical Engine. During a nine-month period in 1842–43, Lovelace translated Italian mathematician Luigi Menebrea's memoir on Babbage's Analytical Engine. With the article, she wrote a set of notes that were longer than the memoir itself and include (Section G) in complete detail a method for calculating Bernoulli numbers with the Engine. This note is considered by some historians as the world's first computer program. Some contemporary biographers such as Benjamin Woolley debate the extent of her contributions, with some insisting that the programs were written by Babbage himself. However, even Babbage himself acknowledged her contributions. There has also been debate of whether or not Ada was even a good mathemetician although she impressed her tutors like Augustus de Morgan with her knowledge. Given how far mathematics have advanced in the almost two hundred years since her birth, it is impossible to judge her by today's standards.

Ada was certainly one of the few people who fully understood Babbage's ideas and was able to explain them in way that a layman could understand. Ada also acknowledged some possibilities of the machine which Babbage never published, such as speculating that "the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent".
Ada never again completed anything like her notes for Babbage's analytical machine. Instead she spent her time on one of her other interests, horse racing. She was constantly in debt as she lost huge sums of money gambling on horse races. To her mother, it was just more evidence of how she had failed to keep Ada from becoming like her father. Ada and her husband continued to live separate lives throughout their marriage. William spent most of his time at their estate in Ockham making improvements, his closeness to her mother didn't help matters. Ada loved London, hanging out with her scientific friends. She may or may not have had an affair with John Crosse, the son of Andrew Crosse, a noted scientist. What is known is that after her death, he used her letters to obtain the funds from her life insurance policy from her executor.

For a number of years she had also been taking laudanum to ease her nerves, like a number of Victorian women. Laudanum, which is an opium derivative, was perscribed in the 19th century for basically every ailment, most particularly for female hysteria. Although Ada loved her children a great deal, and managed to forge better relationships with them, before she died, for years she felt trapped and stifled in marriage and motherhood. In a different era, she might have been able to attend university, and have a career as a professional scientist, which is what she longed for, to have a profession. Instead like most women of her class, she married instead.

Ada died in November 1852 of uterine cancer and the constant bloodletting that was medical treatment at the time. At first Ada's illness was thought to be psychosomatic until it was determined after she was examined, that she was riddled with cancer. In the end, Ada was buried next to the father she never knew at the Church of St. Mary Magadalene at her request which totally pissed her mother off. Despite all her best efforts to separate her daughter from her father, in the end, it came to nothing. Ada combined the best and the worst of both of her parents, like most children.

Over one hundred years after her death, in 1953, Lovelace's notes on Babbage's Analytical Engine were republished after being forgotten. The engine has now been recognized as an early model for a computer and Lovelace's notes as a description of a computer software. Ada's daughter Lady Anne Blunt became famous in her own right, as a traveller in the Middle East along with her husband, poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt, and as a breeder of Arabian horses.

The computer language Ada created by the Department of Defense in the U.S. was named after her and the Department of Military Standard for the language, "MIL-STD-1815", was given the number of the year of her birth.

Other sources:

The Bride of Science, Romance, Reason and Byron's Daughter: Benjamin Wooley, McGraw-Hill, 1999


Childe Byron - Romulus Linney (Linney, a playwright and father of actress Laura Linney, imagines Ada on her deathbed confronting her father)

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

No comments:

Post a Comment