A Calculating Woman

“Lady Byron is much obliged by your enquiries and both she and the little girl are going on as well as possible,” Byron wrote in a letter dated December 1815. Two hundred years ago today, 10th December 1815, Byron’s daughter Ada was born. Barely five weeks later the child was taken away by her mother, ostensibly on a visit to Lady Byron’s parents; but neither Byron’s wife nor his daughter ever came back to him. After this he was forced to rely on scraps of information and the occasional memento – a sketch, a lock of hair – grudgingly relayed by his wife via his sister.

Lord Byron in Albanian costume, Thomas Phillips.

Ada was only a few months past her eighth birthday when her father died in April 1823. She can’t be said to have had a happy childhood since Lady Byron, grimly determined that the daughter should not take after the father, subjected her to a cold and unemotional upbringing. The child’s nurse-maids were changed on a regular basis, to prevent Ada developing an attachment to any of them, and she was taught of “the importance of pleasing mamma by doing her duty,” locked in a dark cupboard for any misbehaviour. She was even forbidden, by a clause in her grandmother’s will, from seeing this famous portrait of her father until she reached the age of twenty-one.

On the surface, it seemed to work. Married at the age of nineteen to a man chosen by her mother for being upright, dutiful and nothing like her father, Ada was a mathematical genius. At the age of eighteen she was introduced to the engineer Charles Babbage, and worked with him designing programs for his Difference Engine, a calculating machine which is considered to have been the forerunner of modern computers. Ada is widely regarded as the author of the first computer program, and today both a computer language and a prize for women in science and technology are named in her honour.

Ada’s “Diagram for the computation of Bernoulli numbers” – the first algorithm?

The final portrait of Ada, painted in 1853 by Henry Phillips. Although very ill and in great pain, Ada insisted on sitting for the picture, since the artist’s father had painted Byron in Albanian costume.

Despite her efforts however, Ada’s mother didn’t succeed in obliterating her Byron inheritance. Just as her father had done, Ada suffered from poor mental health throughout her life. She seems to have experienced acute post-natal depression after the birth of her eldest child (whom she named Byron). She became addicted to gambling, and used her mathematical skills to try to create a model scheme for winning on the horses which, inevitably, left her thousands of pounds in debt.

Ada died in 1854 aged only 36: the same age her father had been when he died. Her final wish was to be buried in the Byron family vault in Hucknall, Nottingham, with her father.