Ada Lovelace

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron in 1815. Ada was the only fully legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron and his wife, Annabella Milbanke. She was named after Byron's half-sister, Augusta Leigh. It was Augusta who encouraged Byron to marry to avoid scandal, and he reluctantly chose Annabella. In 1816 Annabella left Byron, taking one month old Ada with her. Three months later they were formally separated and Byron left England for good a few days later. He was never allowed to see either again. Ada also never knew her younger half-sister, Allegra Byron, daughter of her father and Claire Clairmont, who died at the age of five in 1822. Ada did have some contact with Elizabeth Medora Leigh, the daughter of Augusta Leigh. Ada and Medora were told by Ada's mother that Byron was Medora's father.

Ada lived with her mother, who was interested in mathematics. Lord Byron once called her "the princess of parallelograms”. Annabella taught Ada mathematics and music at an early age, partly to avoid the lack of rationality that she accused Byron of. Ada was privately home schooled in mathematics and science by William Frend, William King and Mary Somerville. At the age of 13 Ada produced a design for a flying machine. Mary Somerville was noted researcher and scientist, who introduced Ada to Charles Babbage in 1833. Babbage was a professor of mathematics at Cambridge, who was known as the inventor of the ‘Difference Engine’, an elaborate calculating machine. They began a long correspondence on the topics of mathematics and logic. Other acquaintances were Sir David Brewster, Charles Wheatstone, Charles Dickens and Michael Faraday. Lady Byron and Ada lived in London society, one in which the participation of noblewomen in intellectual pursuits was not encouraged. There were no professional scientists at the time but they chose to be friends with gentlemen who were interested in scientific matters.

In 1835 Ada married William King, 8th Baron King and later 1st Earl of Lovelace. They had three children; Byron, Annabella and Ralph Gordon. The family lived at Ockham Park, at Ockham, Surrey. They spent their honeymoon in the romantic setting of Ashley Combe near Porlock Weir. Lord King was a descendant of Lord Chancellor Peter King and of the family of John Locke, the philosopher. The King Family owned Ashley Combe, Yearnor, Culbone, Sparkhayes and Bratton near Minehead. Ashley Combe was built in 1799 as a hunting lodge and improved at great expense by Lord King in 1835 for the honeymoon. It later became their summer retreat and was continually improved, presumably with some of the money that Ada brought to the marriage. The family and its fortunes were very much directed by Ada whose domineering was rarely opposed by William.

William King was an engineer with a fascination for tunnels. The house, in the fashionable Italian style, had a tall clock tower. The gardens consisted of terraced walks, each backed by a row of alcoves and joined by spiral stairs. Beyond these were more open gardens facing out of the woods down to the stream below. These contained hot-houses. Beyond these again were woodland walks, ornamented by decorative towers, turrets and archways. Tunnels led tradesmen up from the road to the trade entrance of the house so their carts could not be seen from the house. A woodland walk and steps led down to the beach where a bath-house was built into the cliff to enable Ada to bathe in privacy.

Part of the terraces was known by the family as ‘Philosophers Walk’ because it is there that Ada and Babbage are reputed to have walked discussing the mathematical principles behind the ‘Difference Engine’. Babbage also foresaw the end of coal reserves and thus a need for alternative sources of energy. Possibly inspired by his visits to Ashley Combe and observing the strong currents of the Bristol Channel, he had the idea of power generation by tidal flow. Although the ‘Difference Engine’ was not finished, Babbage made plans for a new kind of calculating machine: an ‘Analytical Engine’. His Parliamentary sponsors refused to support a second machine with the first unfinished. However, Babbage reported on the developments at a seminar at Turin in 1841 and a year later an Italian mathematician, Louis Menebrea, published a memoir in French on the subject. Babbage enlisted Ada as translator for the memoir. When she showed Babbage her translation he suggested that she add her own notes, which turned out to be three times the length of the original article. It is these notes for which she is best known. In her article, published in 1843, she specified in complete detail a method for calculating Bernoulli numbers with the Engine, recognised by historians as the world's first computer program. A software language developed by the U.S. Department of Defense was named "Ada" in her honor in 1979. The computer centre in Porlock is also named after her. Ada also saw wider possibilities for the machine, speculating that such a machine might be used to compose complex music, to produce graphics, and would be used for both practical and scientific use.

Following the publication of the notes, Ada’s life deteriorated, partly through the lack of a scientific project, and particularly because she lacked friends with whom she could discuss mathematical and scientific problems. Babbage, who she looked to for encouragement, was becoming depressed at his own lack of success with financing the development of his computers. Ada, never a healthy woman, had bouts of illness and depression. Perhaps had her husband been a stronger personality, particularly had he been able to match her intellectual abilities, some of the problems might have been avoided. Ada flirted with other men and there were several scandals. Her husband made sure that over 100 of her letters to such friends were destroyed. There was also a problem with over indulgence in wine. Drinking with her meals gradually changed to drinking instead of meals. At one point she considered writing a scientific study of the effects of opium and wine gained from her own experiences. Gambling on horses was another passion. She thought, wrongly, that she had a mathematical formula that would allow her to calculate winners. She pawned some of her jewels to finance her betting and owed £2000 in gambling debts when she died. Ada was bled to death in 1852 at the age of 36 by her physicians, who were trying to treat her for uterine cancer. Coincidentally her father had died at the same age and from the same cause - medicinal bloodletting. At her request, Ada was buried next to the father she never knew at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottingham.

Ada’s daughter, Lady Anne Blunt, became famous in her own right as a traveller in the Middle East and a breeder of Arabian horses. The elder son, Byron, went to sea and did not take up the family responsibilities. The younger son, Ralph, later became 2nd Earl of Lovelace and inherited Ockham Park and the Exmoor estates. Both the 2nd Earl and Countess of Lovelace took great interest in Ashley combe and embarked on an extensive programme of tree planting and redesign of the gardens, estate cottages and main house undertaken by Mary, Countess Lovelace with her friend and advisor, Charles Voysey, the well-known architect of the Arts and Crafts movement. The Countess was a trained architect and the influence of both her and Voysey remains in evidence throughout the estate today. By 1939 the house had been let out to Dr Barnardos for the duration of the war. In 1950 it became a Country Club but was closed after acquiring a dubious reputation. It then fell into disrepair and its owner, the 4th Earl of Lytton, decided to pull it down in 1974. The gardens and terraces, now overgrown, remain partly in the ownership of descendants of the Lovelaces and partly in the ownership of Exmoor National Park Authority.