The famous mathematician Ada Lovelace and the horse named after her

Irishman’s Diary: Wild imagination set her apart from other geniuses of the era, including Charles Babbage

Ada Lovelace: computer genius and daughter of Lord Byron

Those unfortunate people who think coincidence is a sound reason for betting on horses – and I’m one, occasionally – may be interested in tonight’s 6.10pm race at Britain’s new all-weather track, Chelmsford City.

Among the declared runners is Ada Lovelace, a five-year-old mare seeking to go one place better than on her last performance, when she was second at Wolverhampton. And a possible advantage this time, if you're superstitious, is that she'll be running on the 200th birthday of the woman she was named after.  Born on December 10th, 1815, the human Ada Lovelace was the only wed-locked (or "legitimate", if you insist) child of Lord Byron, who fathered several others on a freelance basis. But she grew up to become famous in her own right, as a mathematician and pioneer of computing.

Horse racing people like a joke, clearly, because the four-legged Ada Lovelace is also descended from "Byron" – in this case a stud horse of that name. The stallion is probably not mad, bad, or dangerous to know, unlike his namesake.  But he's even more prolific. In the Racing Post's online stud directory, his list of progeny now stretches to five pages.

Their names apart, I suspect, the only thing the human and equine Ada Lovelaces have in common is not knowing their father very well. The computer genius's mother, Anne Isabella Milbanke, left Lord Byron a month after their baby was born, in horror at the poet's lifestyle. Thereafter, fearing the child might inherit his recklessness, she steered Ada away from him and his romantic ideas, inoculating her with the study of maths and logic instead.


It was probably from Milbanke that Lovelace inherited the mathematical flair. But she also maintained a life-long interest in her father, even to the extent, before her premature demise (at the same age he died – 36), of asking to be buried alongside him.

And it must have been some of his wild imagination that set her apart from other geniuses of the era, including Charles Babbage, the "father of computing", with whom she worked.

Babbage had a vision of building the world’s first computer, or “analytical engine”. It would have been enormous. It would also have have cost fortunes – too much for it to become reality.

But Lovelace, at least, understood its importance, and saw past the unbuilt machine into a future that is still unfolding.

According to Dr Phil Maguire, co-director of the BSc in computational thinking in Maynooth University, Lovelace not only wrote what is considered the world's first computer programme (in 1843), she also predicted that the analytical engine could go far beyond mere number-crunching.

She foresaw it computing abstract patterns too, such as music. So doing, says Maguire, she anticipated the "modern stored-program computer, a concept only formalised by Alan Turing a full 93 years later". Her "revolutionary intuition", he adds, was to sense that the structure of mechanisms could be "represented in terms of data, inputted as punched cards, and 'simulated' by the analytical engine". She also realised there was no limit to this.

Thus the modern world, where smartphones are multipurpose computers, where music is downloaded as information, where a dentist can create artificial teeth via a 3-D printer. And where boundaries between the physical and the computational are, in general, dissolving.

Maguire concludes: “Even today, with computers all around us, the concept of the antiquated analytical engine being in principle powerful enough to simulate all of our modern machines, and perhaps even the entire universe, is strikingly counterintuitive.  It is only now, 200 years after [Lovelace’s] birth, that the full implications of her thinking are becoming apparent.”

Which is all very well, of course (this is me talking again, not Dr Maguire). The question remains, however, whether the four-legged Ada will win tonight’s “Play Scoop6Soccer at Betfred Handicap”, over five furlongs. And unfortunately, not even computers can help us with this.

The problem of “solving” handicap races continues to be notoriously difficult. Although logic plays a part, so does luck.  There are many other unknowables too.

But we can probably rule out the anniversary as a major motivating factor, given that the central protagonist is a horse. And at least one of her rivals looks too strong.

So my advice to potential punters is to keep their money. If you do feel like a bet today, based on computational thinking, I recommend shares in Microsoft.