A Child in the Shadow of an Effigy, Ada Lovelace: The Enchantress of Numbers, The Mother of Computer ProgrammingRead Now
"Is thy face like thy mother's, my fair child!
ADA! sole daughter of my house and heart?
When last I saw thy young blue eyes they smiled,
And then we parted…"
So Spake Mo…
The spectre of Lord Byron lingers in the canals and corridors of Venice. Truly the atmosphere of the ancient labyrinth of stone and water suits the tenor the great poet so often put to paper: a romantic melancholy cloaking a secret and painful guilt, a melancholy increased by the strains of an idealized, pure love. And do those villas, those crumbled holy places not also mirror the proud defiance of that same Byronic hero?
But that spectre carries forward outside the imagined walkways of the Venice of your mind, draws up, draws outward into the digital mind of the computer through which you read this.
Through the lingering ghost of his only legitimate daughter, Ada Lovelace.
Young Ada was but a month old when she last laid eyes on her father, a mere eight years old when he perished in faraway Greece and yet he was a constant formative presence in her life. How could she help but be ever aware of a man whose fame and infamy were preserved in the epic bestselling books of poetry of her time, in the heroic statues on distant shores, in the memories of his friends who survived him and who surrounded her in the social circles of London’s elite.
And of a man who was preserved in her own mother’s memory as an affliction to be
From very early on, the former Lady Byron sought to keep Lord Byron’s influence from her daughter, schooling her in music and mathematics in an effort to guard
against the “dangerous poetic tendencies” she might inherit.
And Lady Lovelace, our dear Ada, excelled in her mother’s favored field, so
much so that the father of the computer, Charles Babbage, dubbed her “The
Enchantress of Numbers” and beseeched her to translate a paper on his
historically pivotal Analytical Engine. She added her own notes to this
translation over the course of nine months and therein lies her own quiet
The Enchantress of Numbers became the mother of computer programming, the inventor of the algorithm.
And with her father’s omnipresence in her life, Ada was able to do something that
Babbage was not, she was able to envision the Analytic Engine as something
greater than a clockwork calculator, she envisioned a machine that could render
music, even images via numeric analysis. She envisioned in 1842 the machine you
interface with right now: the computer.
She would not see the Analytical Engine built. Ada died at the same age as her father, a brief flicker at the age of 36. She requested to be entombed beside her father, the man she’d never known, the man whose genius helped shape her own.
So Spake Me…
How odd it must have been to grow up as the daughter of the world’s first celebrity.
To be simultaneously directed toward and against his idolized heroism and immortalized infamy. And to have the only connection with the truth of the matter come to you through the stylized verse of his poetry and the stylized memories of his former contemporaries.
He was dead long before she was old enough to synthesize a truth of her own. His
last, incomplete letter: a note to her mother thanking her for news of their
Perhaps that was a comfort of some kind.
For me, the melancholy bewilderment lingers in learning their story on so many
The first: Genius and vision was not the only inheritance he left her. By my brief
reading, it seems he bequeathed her his struggles with mental illness as well.
This was regarded very differently in that day. The letters I skimmed seem to
take it with some indulgence as a plague of the truly brilliant. But as family
members, it could make life very difficult, even dangerous. And there was no
help for it in those days.
The second: That I never knew her story. That her amazing contribution to the
progress of our society and our technology was not even a footnote in my education. I have a vague memory of learning of Charles Babbage, but nothing of
Ada Lovelace. Nothing.
The third: That she stands as a bridge between two painful bits of heritage: her
father removed himself from England in part to free himself from the deadly laws
against his bisexuality and Alan Turing (of Turing Machine fame) who based his
work on computers on Lovelace’s work – was chemically castrated for his
homosexuality. Two genius persecuted for who they loved leaves an inevitable
shadow where awe and amazement should reside for the greatness of their
So let this be my brief tribute…
To the man who lit the waters of the Grand Canal with his torch as he swam in the depths of the night and our hearts with the torch of his pen:
But I have lived, and have not lived in vain:
My mind may lose its force, my blood its fire,
And my frame perish even in conquering pain,
But there is that within me which shall tire
Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire [.]
And to the woman who lit the path to science and discovery, to music and beauty as her “Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.” No matter what form that luminous engine may ultimately take.
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