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As a child, Ada Lovelace loved machines. She studied birds and drew sketches trying to build her own flying machine. She put all of her notes into a little book which she called “Flyology.”
When Ada went to a ball, she didn’t find a prince to marry her. Instead, she found an old mathematician, Charles Babbage, who became her lifelong friend. With Babbage, Ada wrote the first programming language in history.
Once upon a time, there was a girl named Ada. She loved machines.
Ada Byron was born in London, more than two hundred years ago, to parents who were polar opposites.
Her father, Lord Byron, was a famous poet known for doing some over-the-top and… unusual things. He’s said to have kept a tame bear as a pet in his college dorm room! Lady Byron, on the other hand, was a proper gentlewoman who had little patience for his antics.
To make matters worse, Lord Byron drank too much and was often unkind to his wife.
So when Ada was just five weeks old, her parents’ short marriage ended. And Ada would never see her father again.
Now, Lady Byron was a single mother, and her top priority was making sure Ada didn’t grow up to be anything like her father. She decided there was just one cure for any eccentric tendencies Ada may have inherited: mathematics.
Lady Byron hired tutors for Ada and planned a rigorous schedule of study. She studied history, geography and music, but her mother was most concerned with her math and science lessons. To her, these subjects were the opposite of poetry.
When Ada began studying mathematics, she was fascinated by the curious ways formulas could be transformed. She said she couldn’t help but imagine them as magical fairies that changed shapes as they pleased!
Despite Lady Byron’s best efforts, Ada had found poetry in numbers.
I’m JODI KANTOR. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the extraordinary women who inspire us.
This week: Ada Lovelace
<END THEME MUSIC>
Ada’s mother was often sick, and her doctors prescribed long trips to spa resorts – serene places with fresh air where she could recover.
So while Lady Byron was away, Ada stayed at their country house with her governesses and tutors, who were nowhere near as strict as her mother…
After her lessons were done, they’d let Ada wander in the garden with her best friend: a cat named Mrs. Puff.
<PLAYFUL MUSIC CUE>
When Ada was twelve years old, she’d sit in the garden with Mrs. Puff and watch the birds. Occasionally, they’d swoop down to eat bits of stale crumbs in the grass. It was then that she could get a closer look.
Ada was transfixed. She wanted to figure out how birds fly, so that one day… she could fly too.
She began her own study of flight.
While Mrs. Puff dozed in the grass next to her, Ada drew sketches and took notes.
She was engaged in her own analytical study, asking: How fast does a bird need to flap its wings? How big are wings compared to a bird’s body?
Every detail was an important part of the puzzle.
Sometimes, Mrs. Puff would catch a bird — after all, she was a predator! And when she did, Ada could inspect bird wings up close.
Her notebook was soon full of ideas and diagrams, and she wanted to publish it when she was done. She called it “Flyology.”
Before long, Ada decided she was ready to build a set of wings for herself! She tested out materials, and eventually decided on wire and oiled silk. She rigged a pulley system with ropes, so she could hoist her flying machine up while she worked on it.
She imagined flying over the English countryside with its old stone walls, rivers and moors. Ada’s idea was to build a sort of flying horse that was powered by a steam engine — like the ones that powered the trains of the day.
Ada wrote letters to her mother, eagerly telling her about her flying machine project. At first, Lady Byron was pleased by her young engineer. But when it seemed that Ada wasn’t keeping up with her studies, Lady Byron scolded her and Ada put an end to her flying experiments.
She was to focus on “becoming a lady.”
INTRODUCED AT COURT / BABBAGE’S MACHINE
When Ada was seventeen years old, her mother decided it was time for her to be introduced to the King in London. This was the custom for girls from wealthy families.
There was a big ball where Ada was “presented” for the first time, and in the months that followed, she was invited to parties all around the city. Her quick wit charmed almost everyone she met, including London’s most eligible bachelors.
But Ada was much more interested in an old mathematician named Charles Babbage.
<PLAYFUL MUSIC CUE>
As they danced, Charles told her about his invention: the Difference Engine.
For years, he’d been working on this machine designed to compute astronomical calculations. The British government thought Charles’ Difference Engine could be useful to them too – it could help sailors navigate their ships – so they gave him some money to build it.
Ada’s eyes lit up. Here was someone who had an idea and actually got to build it – something she never had the chance to do with her flying machine!
Charles, who was known for being grumpy, was charmed by this young woman. Most people didn’t take interest in his inventions, and they certainly didn’t seem to understand their potential the way that Ada did.
So he invited her to come see his great invention.
Ada and her mother paid a visit to Charles’ home in London. His Difference Engine was set up in a shop behind his house. The ladies held up the edges of their skirts as they followed him across a muddy cow field to see his machine.
<SOUND DESIGN OF CRANKS AND WHEELS TURNING>
It stood about two feet tall and had 2,000 moving parts, all made out of brass. Charles Babbage turned the hand crank and the entire machine came alive!
<MORE SOUND DESIGN>
Charles’ elaborate machine was made of wheels and gears that – he hoped – would one day solve mathematical problems and perhaps be more reliable than humans! It was like a massive calculator!
To Ada, the Difference Engine was a thing of beauty and possibility. She could barely contain her excitement! She had a thousand questions for Charles – many he didn’t yet have the answers to.
He was delighted with her enthusiasm for mathematics. He dubbed her “Lady Fairy.”
THE ANALYTICAL ENGINE
But Ada and Charles’ lives were different as could be.
Charles was a widower. And while he toiled away in his workshop, wrote papers and fought for more funding for his projects, Ada became a wife and mother to three children. Which – in the 1830’s – meant she was expected to set aside her studies and experiments.
Ada kept up with Charles’ work through his letters, but she had little time for her own studies. Caring for three young children was incredibly hard work!
But she missed the thrill of studying and experimenting. She longed for the excitement she felt back at her childhood home, working on her flying machine. All around her, machines were changing daily life – from steam trains to factories – and she wanted to be a part of it.
Charles encouraged her in his letters. He thought her talent for math was so strong that she should throw herself into her studies. And she wholeheartedly agreed!
After she’d tuck the children into bed, she’d sit at her desk and work through math problems. She hired a tutor to help her continue her studies. And she was learning to play the harp and to speak German too! Ada was desperate to exercise her mind and her imagination.
But what she wanted most, was to work with Charles on his incredible machines.
Soon, an opportunity presented itself…
<GENTLY DRIVING MUSIC CUE>
One day, he confided in Ada that he was working on something big. Charles had drawn up plans for a new invention that he called the Analytical Engine.
It was like the Difference Engine, but it could do way more! The Difference Engine was designed to make calculations – multiplying numbers many times over. But the Analytical Engine could analyze data and record things in its memory.
People were interested in Charles’ invention, but it was so cutting edge that many didn’t fully understand it. A young engineer published a paper about the Analytical Engine in French, but for Charles, that wasn’t enough: he wanted everyone to know what his machine could do. The thing is… he wasn’t great at explaining it.
But he knew that Ada was fluent in French and he felt that no one understood his creations as well as her. She was the perfect person to translate the article.
She started translating, but she ended up doing much more than that…
As she worked her way through the article, she started jotting down some notes of her own. It was complicated stuff, and she wanted to make sure everything was crystal clear to her readers.
The Analytical Engine hadn’t been built yet – Ada was merely explaining Charles’ designs for it. But Ada could imagine exactly how Charles’ invention would work…
As Ada studied his plans, she could almost hear the whirring clicks and clacks of this huge, beautiful machine.
She could almost see the thousands of interlocking metal gears – towers of them side-by-side.
Ada pictured herself standing next to the Analytical Engine – which would probably be a whole head taller than her! And she peered into the inner workings
Her notes grew and grew… and soon they were longer than the article itself!
<REPRISE OF COLD OPEN CUE>
Ada and Charles went back and forth about her notes – she sent him questions and drafts, and he’d return his notes. And they didn’t always agree…
They quarreled about her translation and notes. At one point, their arguing almost ended their friendship entirely!
But, even in heated discussions about the finer points, deep down they shared one core belief: the world needed to know about Charles’ incredible invention.
So, they always found ways to make up.
Despite their arguing, Charles was so in awe of Ada’s work that he gave her a new nickname: “The Enchantress of Numbers.” Ada had uncovered the incredible potential of a machine that seemed to come straight from the future.
You see, Charles was focused on his machines’ ability to solve math problems, but Ada was thinking bigger! Numbers could be used to represent something else entirely…
Even the design of a bird’s wings!
<SFX/BIRDS WINGS FLAPPING>
Ada thought: if the Analytical Engine had the right instructions, it would be able to do all sorts of things. Maybe even play music!
And she did something else Charles hadn’t.
She wrote detailed instructions, diagrams and tables for how the Analytical Engine could process a complicated math equation. Basically, she wrote a plan for the Analytical Engine to quickly solve a problem that would take a human many hours to solve. By following Ada’s program though, the Analytical Engine could solve it in a matter of seconds!
Computers didn’t exist yet, but Ada has just created the first computer program ever published.
<MUSIC SWELLS AND ENDS>
Ada didn’t live to see the Analytical Engine in action – in fact, it has never been built. And she’d never learn that her incredible ideas would come true in the form of modern computers.
But more than a hundred years after she died, a group of computer scientists created a new programming language for the U.S. Department of Defense.
Now, it’s used around the world to make banks, trains, airplanes and even rocket ships work!
She’d be proud to know that they chose to name this powerful computer language after her. They called it Ada.