Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, was a Victorian-era mathematician and musician who is generally accepted as the first computer programmer.
Ada was born on December 10, 1815 to famous British poet Lord Byron and his wife for one year Annabella Milbanke. (Lord Byron divorced Anna a few weeks after Ada's birth and left England, never to return.) Ada was born into upper-class life in London. She was self taught in math and geometry, but was later tutored in astronomy by William Frend, and math by Augustus De Morgan. She also learned to play the piano, flute and violin. Ada Byron married William King, Earl of Lovelace in 1835, having three children to him and gaining the title Countess of Lovelace.
A fellow mathematician Mary Somerville introduced Ada to Charles Babbage at the age of 17, thus beginning a fruitful intellectual relationship.
Ada's mathematical claim to fame came from her translation of a paper by Italian scientist Menabrea based on Babbage's work. The final paper, titled Observations on Mr. Babbage's Analytic Engine, was about three times thicker than the original Italian version, Ada having added many new footnotes and addendums. The notes contain some of the first programs for the Analytical Engine, in particular a method for determining Bernoulli numbers. The paper was published by Babbage, but authorship was credited only to the initials A.A.L. since Victorian society did not view science as a respectable pastime for a woman. It took 30 years for the true author to be exposed.
Augusta Ada Byron died November 27, 1852 of uterine cancer, a sickness she had been battling for much of her later life.
Ada Lovelace is attributed with having the clarity of vision to foresee future applications of the Analytical Engine as a general purpose computer. She imagined using the machine to manipulate symbols, meaning it could generate more than just numbers. Ada envisioned the engine creating music, or rewriting its own program in a sort of feedback loop. She has been honoured with Ada, a programming language named after her, and was a character in William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's book The Difference Engine. Lately, however, her reputation has been thrown into doubt by at least one historian.
Benjamin Woolley in his book The Bride of Science: Romance, Reason, and Byron's Daughter argues that Ada had only a shaky grasp of elementary algebra. He further claims that Babbage himself supplied the indicies, tables and equations used in the Menabrea footnotes, using a Babbage autobiography written 20 years after Ada's death as evidence. Woolley also notes that the Ada's programs were all written by Babbage three to seven years earlier. Finally, he presents Augusta Ada Byron as an opium-addled, hysteria prone compulsive gambler. (Though not necessarily "compulsive," Babbage and Lovelace bet and lost much money at horse races trying to get the capital to build the Analytical Engine. Unfortunately, their foolproof betting algorithms didn't work, landing them both in serious debt.) Certainly an unflattering and almost libelous image for a scientist.
Despite Woolley's remarks, Lady Lovelace is remembered as the first hacker, and progenitor of the computer age, an inspiration to women (and men) in science even today.