Lord Byron died on April 19, 1824. He's remembered as one of England's greatest poets and as one of Greece's greatest heroes, having died while fighting for Greek independence — but he's also a deeply controversial figure. In a telling indictment, his body was refused interment in Westminster Abbey on grounds of “questionable morality.”
Byron also left behind a daughter whom he never knew. Her name was Ada — later Lady Ada Lovelace — and she led her own brilliant and occasionally scandalous life.
The Madness of Poetry
Ada's mother, Lady Annabella Byron, was well known as a sensible woman. Byron nicknamed her the “Princess of Parallelograms,” owing to her analytical mind. She was concerned about what she deemed her husband's “madness,” and after separating from him, she was determined that her daughter would not inherit the same traits. Ada's original first name — Augusta — was dropped, owing to its association with Byron's half-sister and possible lover. Following this, Lady Annabella instituted what she called her “system” of education on the five-year-old Ada. Her teachings avoided any poetry and focused heavily on mathematics. At 10-years-old, Ada wrote a letter to her mother explaining that she “is a little afraid of theorems, however I must … do my best.”
The Early Visionary
Ada's early letters show a gift for invention as well as language. At age seven, she became obsessed with the idea of designing a working flying machine. She envisaged something with “a steam engine on the inside so contrived as to move an immense pair of wings fixed on the outside … in such a manner as to carry it up into the air while a person sits on its back.”
When Annabella wrote to her estranged husband about Ada's strange fascination with mechanical things, he replied that he was pleased and that “one poet is enough in the family.”
The Runaway Analyst
At age 17, Ada had an affair with one of her tutors, a man named William Turner. She ran away but failed to elope with Turner and was soon sent home. Later in that same year, she met Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first computing machine, and her passions took a different turn. She began to conceptualise the implications of Babbage's machine and how it could store data in the form of numbers as well as perform simple calculations. Her writings on the subject have been identified as the birth of software development, and while she wasn't the inventor of the machine itself, she had a gift for translating Babbage's theories into something people could visualise and value. In turn, Babbage called her “the enchantress of numbers.”
The Scandalous Gambler
In 1835, at age 19, Ada married Lord William King, later to become Lord and Lady Lovelace. But her marriage wasn't an entirely happy one. She kept company with young men in a way that was deemed scandalous at the time and began to gamble heavily. She lost thousands of pounds after attempting to beat a gambling syndicate in a “mathematical” way.
She suffered from ill health, became addicted to opiates and also began to explore her roots in an increasingly melancholic way. When she visited her father's ancestral home for the first time in 1850, she said, “I seem to be in the mausoleum of my race. What is the good of living when thus all passes away and leave cold stone behind … I feel as if I had become a stone monument myself. I am petrifying fast.”
One of the last people outside of Ada's family to see her alive was her friend Charles Dickens, whom she asked to read a death scene from his novel Dombey and Son. Dickens later commented on her strength and composure despite the fact she was suffering from terminal cancer. She died in 1852, aged just 36.
Today her contribution to computer science is a contested subject, owing largely to the fact that she is often mistakenly credited with designing Babbage's machine. What is clear is that she was one of the first people to conceptualise computer programming — an incredible achievement for someone in the mid-1800s. When the United States Department of Defence created a new computer language in the late 1970s/early '80s, they named it Ada in her honor.
Ada was buried beside her father in a small churchyard in London, under the Lovelace family motto: "LABOUR IS ITS OWN REWARD"