Integrating Ada Lovelace into Your Classroom

Oct 8, 2021

Ada Lovelace Lesson Plan

Content Warning: Many websites, books, and videos about Ada Lovelace focus quite a bit of attention on the more unsavory aspects of her father’s life, as well as certain events of the later part of her own life, which may not be appropriate for younger children. In addition, there is a lot of incomplete information and misinformation about her and her work. Some sources likely overestimate her contributions to the Analytical Engine, while others may underestimate them. We suggest you prescreen any materials you plan to use in order to make sure they are appropriate for the age of your students.

Who Was Ada Lovelace?

Ada Lovelace, the Enchantress of Numbers, was the daughter of Victorian bad boy Lord Byron and “Princess of Parallelograms” Annabella Milbanke Byron. Her parents split when she was five weeks old, and she never saw her father again. Ada’s mother wanted her to be nothing at all like her father, so Ada was banned from studying poetry or even looking at his portrait. Instead, she was allowed to study math and science. Ada’s mother hired multiple tutors for her studies, including well-known mathematicians such as Augustus De Morgan and Mary Somerville.

Ada did still have her creative side, however. At age 13, she was absolutely fascinated by the flight of birds—or, as she named the topic, “flyology.” She dissected crows, designed a mechanical bird that could flap its wings, and conceptualized “a horse with a steam engine in the inside so contrived as to move an immense pair of wings, fixed on the outside of the horse, in such a manner as to carry it up into the air while a person sits on its back.” Sadly, this steampunk Pegasus was never built.

At age 17, Ada met the famous inventor and curmudgeon Charles Babbage. At one of his famous soirees, she and her mother watched a demonstration of his Difference Engine No. 1, a mechanical calculator operated by means of a crank. This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and collaboration.

Ada married William King when she was 19. In 1838, King became Earl of Lovelace, which made Ada the Countess of Lovelace. They had three children, but Ada maintained her friendship with Charles Babbage and her interest in his work. She wrote to Babbage, “I think I am more determined than ever in my future plans, and I have quite made up my mind that nothing must be suffered to interfere with them. I intend to make such arrangements in town as will secure me a couple of hours daily (with very few exceptions) for my studies.”

What Were the Engines?

In addition to inventing the cow-catcher and the ophthalmoscope, Charles Babbage invented three “engines”—the Difference Engine No. 1, the Difference Engine No. 2, and the Analytical Engine.

The Difference Engines were basically mechanical calculators, designed to evaluate polynomial functions and generate tables of values. Polynomials were used to approximate functions that were even harder to evaluate, such as logarithmic and exponential functions. The tables were used in navigation, astronomy, and engineering. Tables produced at the time were calculated by hand and frequently contained errors. The first Difference Engine would calculate values mechanically and stamp them into plaster, which could then be used to make an error-free printing plate.

Charles Babbage had a working model built of a part of the Difference Engine No. 1. He gave demonstrations of this model at parties and used it to raise money to fund the construction of the full engine. His complete design would have calculated 16 digits and 6 orders of difference using about 25,000 parts. It would have been eight feet high and weighed four tons. After a disagreement between Babbage and his engineer, construction was stopped in 1832, Babbage lost the rights to his own blueprints, and his government funding was ended.

In 1834, Babbage conceptualized what is often called the first computer: the Analytical Engine. The Analytical Engine was designed to do everything the Difference Engine could do plus conditional branching, so it could have computed general recursive functions. This would have been a huge, steam-powered machine, 15 feet tall and a minimum of 45 feet long, with the ability to calculate up to 100 variables. Machines to calculate 1,000 variables would have been 10 times as long. Only a small part of the Analytical Engine was constructed during Babbage’s lifetime.

After designing the Analytical Engine, Babbage returned to the idea of the Difference Engine. In 1849, he completed the design of the Difference Engine No. 2, which could calculate 31 decimal places for up to 7th degree polynomials. Although this was never built in his lifetime, a working model was finally built and tested in 1991, 120 years after his death.

Activity 1: Build Your Own Pascaline

To help students understand how a mechanical computing device works, have them research and build a model of a Pascaline, then use it to add and subtract. Students can work in groups to create and assemble the gears. Here are some resources to get you started:

What Did Ada Lovelace Do?

Ada Lovelace was fascinated by the Analytical Engine and its potential. She traveled to northern England to study Jacquard looms, which used punch cards to weave intricate patterns. She wrote, “The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.” Punch cards were used in computer programming up until the mid-1980s.

Black-and-white photo of a woman feeding punch cards into a machine

Activity 2: Punch Card Searching

Help students understand punch card programming with this activity that uses a magic trick.

The First Program

Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea attended a lecture by Charles Babbage about the Analytical Engine. In 1842, he published a detailed mathematical article about the engine in French. Ada Lovelace translated the article and added her own extensive notes. In these notes, she included an algorithm for calculating Bernoulli numbers, which is considered to be the first computer program. It is unknown exactly how much of the notes were hers alone and how much were produced in collaboration with Babbage, but historians generally agree that she understood the potential of the Analytical Engine in a way that was beyond Babbage’s vision. She described how codes could be created for the device to manipulate letters and symbols. She theorized a method of repeating a series of instructions, which is now called looping, and even suggested that it could be used to compose “elaborate and scientific pieces of music.” Babbage wrote to her, “The more I read your notes the more surprised I am at them and regret not having earlier explored so rich a vein of the noblest metal.”

Ada’s Legacy

Ada Lovelace died of cancer at age 36. Because the Analytical Engine was never built, her work did not have the impact it could have had, and her ideas were nearly lost to time. Her work was rediscovered 100 years later by Alan Turing, the World War II codebreaker and father of artificial intelligence. He debated her statements about the Analytical Engine’s abilities and whether machines could ever be capable of thinking. When Ada Lovelace’s notes were republished by B. V. Bowden in his 1953 book Faster Than Thought, she became more widely recognized as a pioneer of early computer programming. In the 1970s, the U.S. government developed a programming language named Ada in her honor, which is still in use today.

Activity 3: Can Machines Think?

Have students research the Turing and Lovelace tests for artificial intelligence and compare the two. Discuss which test is more appropriate and whether artificial intelligence truly exists.

Advanced Activity: Ada’s Program

For students with a bit of coding experience and higher-level math knowledge, this article from Two-Bit History contains a detailed analysis of Ada Lovelace’s program and a link to a translation of the program into C. Students can read and discuss the article, or they can use the program to generate Bernoulli numbers.

Ada Lovelace Day

Ada Lovelace Day is celebrated on the second Tuesday of October each year. Here are some ideas and resources for organizing your own event for Ada Lovelace Day:

To learn more, you can download a list of some of the resources Tessa discovered while researching Ada Lovelace.

Timeline​

1642 The Pascaline, invented by Blaise Pascal, could add and subtract two numbers by turning a series of gears.

A photo of a pascaline
Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris
1671 The Step Reckoner was invented by Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. It was based on the Pascaline but could also multiply and divide. A photo of a step reckoner
1821 Charles Babbage’s first design was the Difference Engine No. 1. If completed, it would have weighed over four tons and stood eight feet high. Construction was stopped in 1832 due to a dispute with the engineer.

Photo of Difference Engine No. 1
Science Museum, London
1833 Ada Lovelace met Charles Babbage and watched a demonstration of the Difference Engine No. 1. A black-and-white portrait of Ada Lovelace
1834 Babbage conceptualized the Analytical Engine, which incorporated the ability to perform conditional branching and looping operations.

A blueprint for the analytical engine
Science Museum, London
1840 Luigi Federico Menabrea attended a lecture by Charles Babbage on the Analytical Engine. In 1842, he published a paper about the engine in French. Portrait of Luigi Menabrea
1843 Ada Lovelace translated Menebrea’s paper, adding her own notes and detailed explanations, including the first published computer program.
1849 Charles Babbage completed the design of the Difference Engine No. 2, which could calculate 31 decimal places for up to 7th degree polynomials.

Blueprints for the Difference Engine No. 2
Science Museum, London
1866 Economist and logician William Stanley Jevons invented the Logic Piano, a mechanical computer that carried out logical operations.

Photo of the keyboard of the logic piano
The Logic Piano Keyboard. Museum of the History of Science, Oxford. Inventory No. 18230
1909 Irish inventor Percy Ludgate designed a second analytical machine, developed independently of Babbage’s work.

Photo of Ludgate's analytical engine
Science Museum, London
1936 Mathematician Alan Turing conceptualized the Turing machine, a mechanical device that manipulates symbols on a strip of paper.

Photo of a Turing Machine model assembled by Mike Davey
GabrielF, Wikimedia.org
1944 The Harvard Mark I computer, invented by Howard Aiken, was installed at Harvard University.
1991 The first complete model of the Difference Engine No. 2 was finally built by the Science Museum in London.

Photo of Difference Engine No. 2
Science Museum, London

 

Tessa Henry is a Supervising Editor for Six Red Marbles. She has been writing and editing math products from preK to calculus for over 20 years, with a particular fondness for geometry. She is also a Girl Scout leader and enjoys hiking, reading, and playing with string (crocheting, knitting, tatting, and macramé).

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