ITV’s Victoria: Who was Ada Lovelace and did she really catch the eye of Prince Albert?

Emerald Fennell plays the Victorian computer programmer in ITV's royal drama

Ada Lovelace in Victoria

Who is the “lady mathematician” in episode two of Victoria? None other than Ada Lovelace! Series creator Daisy Goodwin introduces us to a vital figure in early computing – but Queen Victoria herself is not amused by how much her husband seems to like this woman.

Advertisement

Who was Ada Lovelace?

Ada Lovelace is often considered to be the first computer programmer – before computers even really existed.

Portrait of English author and mathematician Ada Byron (later Lovelace, 1915 - 1852), circa 1835. (Photo by New York Public Library/Interim Archives/Getty Images)

Born in 1815, Lovelace was the only legitimate child of poet Lord Byron, though her parents separated a month after her birth and she never met her father. Her mother Anabella encouraged Ada’s interest in maths and science over the arts to avoid what she saw as Byron’s “madness”, but Ada looked up to him and described her work as “poetical science”.

Eventually, her work led to a friendship and working relationship with Charles Babbage, the creator of the earliest mechanical computers including the Analytical Engine – and the man with whom Lovelace made history.

You see, Lovelace wrote a paper in the 1840s imagining the potential of Babbage’s machines, including the idea that they could compose music and the original computer algorithm (you’re welcome, Google), now widely considered to be the world’s first computer program.

Sadly, Lovelace never got to try out her ideas after falling out with Babbage and dying young, but she went on to inspire early computer pioneers including a certain Alan Turing (who found her paper during his research). Turing is of course the mathematician whose codebreaking computer helped end the Second World War, and is widely considered to be the father of computer science and artificial intelligence.

Who plays Ada Lovelace in Victoria?

Ada Lovelace in Victoria
Ada Lovelace in Victoria (ITV)

Emerald Fennell, who is also known for her role as Nurse Patsy Mount in Call the Midwife.

Did Victoria really get jealous about Prince Albert’s relationship with Ada Lovelace?

What we do know is that Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace did try to enlist Prince Albert’s support to build their machine. Lovelace even tried to become a science advisor or tutor to Albert, who at the time was apparently looking to serve as a patron to a grand scientific projectThe plot came to nothing, but this does indicate that they likely crossed paths. 

Albert made it clear that he enjoyed the company of scientists and pursued his own interests, even collecting scientific instruments and establishing a private observatory at Kew. But he also seems to have been more interested in Babbage than Lovelace.

The prince visited Babbage to see the invention at his workshop in Dorset Street in 1842, but ultimately he never took the risk of promoting the Analytical Engine. Babbage was not even invited to participate in Albert’s Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in 1851.

Ada Lovelace addressing Prince Albert and Queen Victoria
Ada Lovelace addressing Prince Albert and Queen Victoria (ITV)

And could Victoria have been suspicious of Albert and Ada?

This is less clear, but one thing is for sure: Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had a tempestuous marriage. While they were devoted to each other as husband and wife, and while they had a strong sexual relationship, they also had terrible rows.

Victoria resented being robbed of her powers as queen when her pregnancies forced her to take a back seat, and when she had temper tantrums, Albert feared she might have inherited the madness of King George, according to the historian Jane Ridley.

Another thing: while in the series Victoria is unaware that Ada Lovelace is Lord Byron’s daughter until after they’ve been introduced, in reality she probably knew this very well. A diary entry for 1839, the year before she married Albert, mentions a conversation with Lord M: “Talked of Lady Byron, and Lady Lovelace.”

Advertisement

Victoria airs on Sundays at 9pm on ITV