This culture landmark provides a general overview of Ada Lovelace, considered by some the first computer programmer.

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Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace was born in London on December 10, 1815. Her father was the brilliant, yet notorious poet Lord Byron and her mother was Anne Isabella Milbanke. Her father was one of the greats of poetry, but his personality was unstable. Her mother was highly intelligent and had been well-educated by private tutors.

Ada’s father abandoned his wife and daughter when Ada was one month old. He died in Greece when Ada was eight years old. Ada never knew him. Ada’s mother, Lady Byron, seems to have had little or no affection for her daughter and had very little contact with her.

One thing her mother insisted upon was that Ada get a high quality education. Her mother wanted Ada to concentrate particularly hard on mathematics and science. She had two reasons for this:

  • these were her own favorite subjects.
  • she was worried that insanity ran in Ada’s father’s family and wanted her daughter to stay away from her father’s interests, such as poetry.


Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852),
mathematician and writer.
Image from

Difference engine

The Difference Engine. Image from

Analytical engine

The Analytical Engine. Image from

Menabrea's notes

Menabrea's notes translated by Ada Lovelace.
Image from

On June 5, 1833, then 17-year-old Ada met Charles Babbage. Babbage was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. Babbage had become fed up with people making mistakes in lengthy calculations, and his idea was to build an infallible steam-driven or hand-cranked calculating machine, called the difference engine. Ada was completely captivated by the concept.

In 1842 Ada Lovelace became aware of a work in French called Sketch of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, by Luigi Federico Menabrea, an engineer. Menabrea had listened to lectures by Babbage and written them up in French.

By this time, Babbage had moved on from the difference engine to a much higher level computer concept, the analytical engine, which would be capable of much more sophisticated calculations than the original difference engine. Indeed, the analytical engine concept was completely groundbreaking, and a work of incredible genius on Babbage’s part; it was the world’s first programmable computer. In modern terms, the analytical engine would be described as Turing-complete. It featured an arithmetic logic portion, control flow by loops and conditional branching, and separate memory – and all of this to be built using mechanical parts and powered by hand-cranking or steam!

Babbage's Analytical Machine featured an arithmetic logic portion, control flow by loops and conditional branching, and separate memory.

Ada Lovelace translated Menabrea’s work into English. Babbage read her translation and asked her why she had not written such a paper herself, because she was more than capable. Perhaps she could now add her own thoughts to Menabrea’s work? Ada Lovelace responded by adding notes to her translation of Menabrea’s work. Her notes were three times more extensive than the original work. When her English translation was published, most of the work published was actually her own.

Lovelace's notes were three times more extensive than the Menabrea's original work.

She also added algebraic workings to the notes for how an analytical engine could perform calculations. Babbage himself took on one of the trickiest calculations –Bernoulli Numbers– and sent it to Ada to include in her work, but she detected and corrected what Babbage himself described as ‘a grave error’ in his working. In her notes, she included the world’s first published computer algorithm – this was the Bernoulli number algorithm – and hence she is often cited as the world’s first computer programmer. It would be fair to say, though, that Babbage contributed much of this section of her notes – precisely how much is the subject of academic debate.

Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage (1791-1871),
Math Professor at Cambridge University.
Image from

Luigi Menabrea

Luigi Menabrea (1809-1896),
Italian engineer.
Image from



1. Who was her father?

2. What was her relationship with her mother like?

3. Why did her mother want her to study science? (Two reasons)

4. Who was her mentor and colleague?

5. What was the differential machine?

7. Who was Luigi Menabrea and why is he important in Ada's career?

8. What is the difference between the differential machine and the analytical machine?

9. In Babbage and Lovelace's work in common, what did Babbage research on?

10. What did Ada do with Babbage's work?

In her notes Ada Lovelace broke new ground in computing, identifying an entirely new concept. She had grasped that anything that could be converted into numbers, such as music, or the alphabet or images, could then be manipulated by computer algorithms. This was the first ever perception of a modern computer – not just a calculator – but a machine that could contribute to other areas of human endeavor, for example to compose music.

She discovered that anything could be converted into numbers, such as music, the alphabet or images, and then manipulated by computer algorithms.

Ada Lovelace became increasingly unwell after she wrote her notes and died on November 27, 1852, probably of uterine cancer, at the age of 36. Charles Babbage ran into financial problems, which meant that he never built a working computer.

Please watch the following video (subtitled) for further information.

11. Why is she considered the first computer programmer in history?

12. What groundbreaking discovery did she make?

13. How old was she when she died?

14. What did she die from?

15. Did Babbage finally build a working computer? Why or why not?


1. Lord Byron, the famous poet.
2. Her mother made sure she got an education, but she did not really take care of Ada.
3. a. These were her own favourite subjects and b. She did not want Ada to become like her father.
4. Charles Babbage, a maths professor at Cambridge.
5. A crank-driven machine to make calculations
6. Yes.

7. Menabrea was an engineer who had listened to Babbage's lectures and written up his notes in French. Ada translated them into English and added her own notes.
8. The analytical machine was Turing-complete and it featured an arithmetic logic portion, control flow by loops and conditional branching, and separate memory.
9. Bernoulli numbers.
10. She corrected Babbage's errors.

11. She wrote the Bernoulli number algorithm, which is considered the first published computer algorithm.
12. She discovered that music, the alphabet and images could be converted into numbers.
13. 36 years old.
14. Uterine cancer.
15. No, because he went bankrupt.


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