Augusta Ada King: If You Can Read This, Say Thanks

If you’ve done a Google search today, you may have been puzzled by the odd illustration on the search engine site’s web page. Who is that woman in the Victorian gown and hair in a bun, scribbling what appear to be equations?

Google’s decorative design is a tribute to one of the lesser-known giants of modern technology: Augusta Ada King, born on December 10, 1815, who made possible a world in which we can type a few keystrokes and dig up reams of information on just about any conceivable subject. And amazingly, King – also known by her noble title of Lady Lovelace – did it about 135 years before the advent of the desktop PC.

As this post from Google’s official blog notes, Google officials started thinking about Lady Lovelace last year, when a group of them visited the British Prime Minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street and noticed a painting of the elegantly dressed early 19th-century noblewoman. “Most of us had no idea who she was,” the blog’s authors, Google VP Megan Smith and senior manager of external relations Lynette Webb, confess.

But we should. Lady Lovelace was the  daughter of illustrious English poet and adventurer, Lord George Gordon Byron, who rushed off on an overseas trip five months after her birth and never returned to see her again. She was educated by private tutors, which gave her the opportunity to study mathematics – an opportunity seldom available to girls her age. And she learned well. At age 17, she made the acquaintance of Charles Babbage, the gentleman scientist and tinkerer who designed a calculating machine, the Difference Engine, back in 1832, and subsequently developed plans for the Analytical Engine, the mechanical precursor of today’s computers. But it was Lady Lovelace who helped Babbage find uses for his invention. With him, she wrote in pen step-by-step instructions for how the machine could calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers, which became the world’s first published algorithm – that is, a way to solve a problem through calculations.

But Lady Lovelace saw possibilities in Babbage’s calculating machines that transcended the inventor’s own ambitions. As she wrote in the notes that she published about the project:

Again, [the Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine . . . Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.

As Smith and Webb note, this represented “an astounding conceptual leap from calculation to computing.” Lady Lovelace envisioned a day when a computer could effortlessly handle the dizzying array of tasks that we use them for today. Unfortunately, both Babbage and his female colleague were ahead of their time. Babbage’s designs were too complicated for 19th-century skills and materials to build, and it wasn’t until 1991 that London’s Science Museum managed to construct an actual Difference Engine from his drawings. Lady Lovelace, who weathered several romantic scandals and struggled with addiction to opium and gambling, died of cancer at age 37 in London in 1852. But given her dream of computerized music, we’d have to suspect that up in digital heaven, she gets a smile every time someone listens to a new song on Spotify.