Ada Lovelace – yes there is such a thing as a female genius

Two wonderful films on current release – The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game – celebrate men that are widely acknowledged to be geniuses: Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing, respectively. But can you think of any women about whom this word has been used? Neither could I. So this week’s challenge was to find one, and I did!

Ada Lovelace was born in 1815, the only legitimate child of Lord Byron during his brief marriage to Annabelle Milbanke; the marriage ended a month after Ada was born. Annabelle was determined that Ada wouldn’t inherit her father’s unstable artistic temperament. And so, unusually for a girl, Ada was made to study science and maths, which she relished – she read numbers like most people read words. She was fascinated with the new inventions of the Industrial Revolution and even, aged twelve, designed her own flying machine.

Ada’s intellectual gifts soon became obvious, and her position in an elite London society meant that she came into contact with many of the ‘gentleman scientists’ of the day. In 1833, she met the mathematician Charles Babbage, who had designed an early calculator-like computer. A close and lifelong friendship developed between them and Babbage later described her as “that Enchantress who has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects could have exerted over it.” In 1842, she was asked to translate an Italian article on Babbage’s new device, the analytical engine. She added her own insights and gained an understanding of the device that no other nineteenth-century scientist had achieved. Her 20,000-word notes were three times longer than the original article and described how codes could be created to enable the device to handle letters and symbols as well as numbers. She also developed a method by which the device could repeat a series of instructions, a process that is used in computer programming today. Her notes are widely credited with containing the world’s first computer programme and inspired Alan Turing’s work in the 1940s. However, Babbage never built the machine.

Ada had an interesting personal life too. She was plagued by ill health for her whole life and had what was described as a ‘complicated personality’ – most likely bipolar. She tried to elope with her tutor at age eighteen, a scandal that was covered up by her mother. A year later, she married William King, ten years her senior, becoming the Countess of Lovelace three years later, but rumours of her affairs dogged their marriage. She was also a gambler and tried to develop a mathematical model for successfully placing large bets but it wasn’t one of her smartest theories and left her thousands of pounds in debt. She had three children, but never escaped the control of her domineering mother.

Sadly, Ada never had the chance to put her mathematical theories into practice; she died of uterine cancer at thirty-six. During her illness, she had a religious transformation, and confessed something to her husband (no-one knows what) that caused him to abandon her on her deathbed. At her request, she was buried beside the father she never met.

For many years, Ada’s ideas were credited to Babbage, and experts have disagreed over the extent of her contributions to computer science. But finally she’s receiving the acclaim she deserves and has been called the ‘prophet of the computer age’.