On a summer Monday evening in 1833, Ada Byron and her mother Anne Isabella “Annabella” Byron went to the home of English mathematician Charles Babbage. Twelve days earlier, when the younger Byron met Babbage at a high society soiree, she had been taken with his description of a machine he was building.
The hand-cranked apparatus of bronze and steel used stacks of cogs, hammer-like metal arms, and thousands of numbered wheels to automatically solve mathematical equations. But the Difference Engine, as Babbage called it, was incomplete. He had finished a small prototype that stood about two-and-a-half feet tall. The clanging, whirring showpiece was able to spit out answers to challenging mathematical equations. Babbage believed the complete product had the potential to solve much more complex problems. The Difference Engine’s demonstration piece set London’s intellectual circles and scientific community alight, wowing the likes of Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens. Its performance was near miraculous, even to London’s greatest intellects—an almost sorcerous parlor trick for Babbage.
While the Difference Engine wasn’t magical to 17-year-old Ada Byron, it was transformative. Upon seeing the machine on that fateful evening in 1833, she understood how it worked. In Ada, 41-year-old Babbage found his intellectual equal, and over the course of the next two decades, Ada would prove that her understanding and vision for such machines went far beyond mere calculation.