Ada Lovelace, a Scientist in the archives

Posted by Professor Ursula Martin on 12 October 2015

Ada Lovelace (1815 - 1852) was the daughter of the notorious poet Lord Byron and his wife Isabella: she was brought up by her mother, a stern educational reformer, and developed a passionate interest in mathematics and science.

The first computer programme

In 1843 she published a remarkable paper explaining the operation of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, an unbuilt mechanical computer. In principle it could calculate any function - in modern terms a “general purpose computer”. Remarkably, Lovelace’s paper presents it, not in terms of ironmongery, but as what we could now call an “abstract machine”, describing the functions of memory, Central Processing Unit (CPU), registers, loops and so on. The paper contains what is often described as the first computer programme. This is a table of formulae which, as Lovelace herself explained more accurately, “presents a complete simultaneous view of all the successive changes” in the machine as a calculation progresses.

Familiar programme issues

The very readable paper raises issues still familiar today - the complexity of programming, the difficulty of verification, the need for programme optimization, and the power of abstraction. In what Turing later described as Lady Lovelace’s objection, she observed that The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. She reflected on how the machine might do algebra, as well as compute with numbers, how it weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves and how if music could be represented algebraically the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.

Lovelace's legacy

Lovelace’s name lives on through the Ada programming language, and initiatives for women in science. She has become a controversial figure, with numerous biographies feeding strong opinions ranging from blatant misogyny to overenthusiastic claims that she foresaw quantum mechanics, invented the CD, and even created Silicon Valley.

Lovelace's power of thinking

We know so much about Lovelace because of remarkable archives of family papers, deposited in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Surprisingly, it is only in this 200th anniversary year that these have been studied by experts in the history of mathematics. At the time to “be a mathematician” meant, roughly, to think rationally about the world in a principled way, informed by hand calculation and numerical data. For Chris Hollings, Adrian Rice and myself, reading Lovelace’s two year correspondence course with mathematician Augustus De Morgan is like eavesdropping on a series of lessons with an impressive student who may make mistakes in calculation, but whose intelligent questions show deep understanding. De Morgan himself praised Lovelace’s power of thinking as “utterly out of the common way”, and capable of grasping the “real difficulties of first principles”. The papers have a playful side too - a charming document shows Lovelace and Babbage playing with algorithms for graphs and networks.

The importance of libraries and archives

There is no need to over-claim - in her 200th birthday year we celebrate Ada Lovelace, who defied the constraints of her time to write in a prescient and foresighted way about computing. And the celebration allows us to reflect on the importance to science of libraries and archives, not only in illuminating the lives of charismatic individuals, but also in understanding how science is conducted, and the variety of influences, both scientific and cultural , on the emergence of new ideas.

Professor Martin is leading Oxford’s celebration of the 200th birthday of Ada Lovelace, including a display of previously unseen letters at the Bodleian Library and Symposium in December 2015

Celebrating Ada:

A new exhibition celebrates this Victorian pioneer of the computer age.Opening on Ada Lovelace day, the exhibition brings together for the first time Lovelace's portraits, letters and notes, alongside the incredible calculating machines she worked with.


In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Professor Ursula Martin
Name: Professor Ursula Martin
Job title: Computer Scientist and Mathematician
Department: Computer Science and Maths
Organisation: University of Oxford

Professor Ursula Martin CBE is a computer scientist and mathematician at the University of Oxford. She holds an v Established Career Fellowship, and is working with colleagues in Oxford and Edinburgh to study how mathematicians collaborate.