How Lord Byron's Scandals Led Ada Lovelace To Become A Mathematician

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Ada Lovelace is now most famously known as the mother of computer science, but during her lifetime, she was also well known on account of her famous father: Lord Byron. Although Ada never met her father, his scandalous behavior had a profound effect on how she was raised — on a strict diet of mathematics.


George Gordon Byron and Anne Isabella ("Annabella") Milbanke were an unlikely match from the start. By the time they met, Byron was already a celebrity, notorious for his hedonistic lifestyle and, of course, his brilliant poetry. Annabella was a popular intellectual who practiced a particularly austere form of Unitarianism. She actually rejected his first proposal (which, apropos of Byron's life, was made under rather melodramatic circumstances). But Annabella warmed to Byron after watching him flirt with his own half-sister Augusta. (Yup.) And when he sought her hand a second time, it may have been because he feared that he'd fathered Augusta's child and hoped that marriage would distract him from his incestuous ardor. (Double yup.)

The marriage was doomed before it started. From the moment that Byron and Annabella started their courtship in earnest, it was clear that they were not compatible. He had made some noise about getting her to reform him, to make him a less impulsive and more (by Victorian standards) virtuous person, but it quickly became clear that he had no intention of changing his ways. Annabella, for her part, proved far more manipulative and possessive than Byron expected. After the birth of their daughter, however, Annabella became fed up with Byron's moods and his behavior, even wondering if he may have been mad. She separated from Byron, taking Ada with her.

Annabella believed that Byron's moral failings — in addition to his more open debaucheries, Annabella suspected him of committing incest and engaging in same-sex sexual encounters, a capital offense at the time — were the result of the poet's imagination being allowed to run wild. She feared that this same Byronic "madness" might crop up in her daughter. So she made every effort to suppress young Ada's imagination. Of course, it's a difficult thing to stifle a child's imagination, and Ada had a very active one. Her childhood writings include short works of fiction, her dreams of founding a colony, and fanciful plans for a steam-powered flying mechanical horse.

Lord Byron had named Annabella the "Princess of Parallelograms," but the truth was that Annabella wasn't a mathematician by specialty. She was more of an academic dilettante, someone who was always reading up on the latest in science, mathematics, art, literature, and philosophy. However, Ada grew up being told that mathematics in particular would order her mind and, thus, strengthen her character. When Ada was a teenager, Annabella tapped the Cooperative Movement promoter Dr. William King to guide her academic and moral education. Like Annabella, Dr. King believed that imagination was a dangerous thing and he prescribed Ada a rigorous study of mathematics, which he believed would encourage no "objectionable thoughts."

Ada frequently rebelled against her mother's cronies and even enjoyed a minor scandal of her own. She had a brief affair (just shy of coitus, according to the records) with one of her tutors and tried to run off and elope with him. After one of her favorite suitors turned out to be a con man, however, Ada was spooked, fearing she couldn't trust her own judgment. She resolved to follow Dr. King's suggestions and found that she had a particular passion for math and science. Because Annabella and her friends believed that these subjects would temper her Byronic blood, she was forcefully encouraged to pursue them.

It was Ada's mathematical studies that led her to meet science writer Mary Somerville. (As we're talking about imagination, it's interesting to note that, while Somerville was a respected member of the scientific community, she feared that women simply did not possess the spark of "originality" that scientific genius required.) Ada's connection to Somerville, in turn, secured her invitations to inventor Charles Babbage's soirees. Ada was by then already fascinated by Babbage's mechanical computer, and this began the defining chapter of her scientific life: her work on Babbage's Analytical Engine and her development of the first computer program. Dr. King, for his part, did not approve of Ada's breathless passion for such a newfangled device.


Fortunately for us, Dr. King and the rest of Annabella's circle weren't successful in suppressing Ada's imagination. And Ada herself made it very clear in her own writing that she felt that such imagination — and even poetry — was key to her scientific work. She once wrote to her mother, imploring, "You will not concede me philosophical poetry. Invert the order! Will you give me poetical philosophy, poetical science?"

Source: The Bride of Science: Romance, Reason, and Byron's Daughter by Benjamin Woolley.




As illustrated by Hark, A Vagrant!