Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Quote of the Day: The Analytical Engine

 

“The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform.”–Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace

One-hundred eighty-seven years ago, on June 5, 1833, Augusta Ada Byron (she was the poet’s only legitimate child and a brilliant 15-year-old student) met Charles Babbage, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University. Ada and Charles subsequently went their separate ways, she married and had children, but she never lost her love for, or stopped studying, mathematics. Although she thought about her one-time mentor every now and then, and about the huge mechanical “Difference Engine” he’d built to perform and tabulate mathematical functions, she did not come into his life again in a substantive way until 1842. She was asked by a mutual friend, Charles Wheatstone, to translate an article written in Italian and describing a talk that Babbage had given in Turin the previous year.

At the time, Babbage was on a whirlwind tour of Europe, trying to drum up the money to build his next-generation “Analytical Engine,” as he’d been repeatedly disappointed at the lukewarm and miserly reception to his fundraising efforts in his native England. Babbage envisioned a steam-powered unit, into which instructions were fed by a series of punched cards (an idea he stole from the French weavers and their Jacquard looms, another interesting story in its own right). A memory store in the Analytical Engine would be capable of holding a thousand or so numbers, and the output resulting from its machinations would be sent straight to a printer.

Although parts of the Analytical Engine were built during his lifetime, it was never completed. But Babbage produced meticulous drawings, descriptions, and explanations of his proposed Engine, and plans to build one continue to this day. There’s an enormous amount of information available on the web and in print about it, and there’s a fascinating series of articles, and a program emulator, on Fourmilab, the site run by Ricochet member @johnwalker.

Ada’s reputation rests largely on a series of her own notes which she appended to the article she translated in 1842. Babbage was impressed with her translation and suggested that she add her own thoughts following it. In them, she suggests that computers would, one day, be fully programmable and that they would be able to compose music, create graphics, and become useful in commerce and business. She describes the Engine as “weav[ing] algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves,” and says that the programs one day might act on other things besides numbers:

“Supposing that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”

She details now familiar programming techniques such as branching and looping, and how the punch cards containing the instructions for the computer to follow and execute would work. (As some might deem typical of the fair sex, her notes are three times as long as is the article she translated, and on which she was commenting.)

She wound up her musings with “Note G,” a discussion of how the Analytical Engine and a series of punched cards could be used to calculate Bernoulli numbers. Though this is often described as “the world’s first computer program,” and Lady Ada as “the first computer programmer,” it’s actually more of an explanatory trace of the steps that the machine would have to make to calculate the numbers. Just as notable an achievement, though.

Ada Lovelace was just 36 when she died in 1852, from what was probably a combination of uterine cancer and the treatment for such a condition at the time. Her last years were dissolute and given over to gambling and affairs, and her husband abandoned her shortly before she died. At her request, she was buried next to her father at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. A sad end for an unusual, and very bright lady, one who broke the mold and did her bit to change the world.

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  1. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    And I, an Ada programmer, knew most but not all of that. Uterine cancer? Not the acute alcoholism I was told by a scurrilous fellow programmer who missed Fortran.

    Well done, She.

    • #1
    • June 5, 2020, at 5:24 AM PDT
    • 8 likes
  2. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Percival (View Comment):

    And I, an Ada programmer, knew most but not all of that. Uterine cancer? Not the acute alcoholism I was told by a scurrilous fellow programmer who missed Fortran.

    Well done, She.

    Thanks. Yes, she was a hot mess at the end of her life. Very sad, and at such a young age. I’ve always thought it odd that Byron, who many think of as the most “romantic” of the Romantic poets is buried in the railway and mining town of Hucknall in Nottinghamshire, while Keats and Shelley are in Rome and Wordsworth is in the beautiful Lake District. Coleridge’s remains were dug up (as it were) in a wine cellar in London couple of years ago. He’d been moved from his original resting place and was supposed to have been reinterred in the crypt proper, but apparently got dumped in the wine cellar (I think it belonged to a neighboring house and was annexed to the church at some point), and then forgotten about. Byron, the most iconoclastic of the lot, has the most prosaic resting place.

    • #2
    • June 5, 2020, at 5:59 AM PDT
    • 9 likes
  3. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    She (View Comment):
    Byron, the most iconoclastic of the lot, has the most prosaic resting place.

    Yes, but Byron was a better poet than Shelley or Writesrot Wordsworth (though not as good as Keats), and died a legitimate war hero in Greece, so I think he rather earned a more prosaic resting place in the end – he redeemed himself, after a fashion.

    • #3
    • June 5, 2020, at 8:07 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  4. Arahant Member

    I’m sure it will surprise all of you to read that this is the Quote of the Day for today. It may further surprise y’all to learn that we still have thirteen openings on our June sign-up sheet. Any quotations you’d like to share?

    • #4
    • June 5, 2020, at 8:29 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  5. Arahant Member

    She: Though this is often described as “the world’s first computer program,” and Lady Ada as “the first computer programmer,” it’s actually more of an explanatory trace of the steps that the machine would have to make to calculate the numbers. Just as notable an achievement, though.

    Pseudo-code, in a sense.

    • #5
    • June 5, 2020, at 8:34 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  6. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):
    Byron, the most iconoclastic of the lot, has the most prosaic resting place.

    Yes, but Byron was a better poet than Shelley or Writesrot Wordsworth (though not as good as Keats), and died a legitimate war hero in Greece, so I think he rather earned a more prosaic resting place in the end – he redeemed himself, after a fashion.

    And so must we all hope to–redeem ourselves, I mean.

    But, come on! Tintern Abbey is a wonderful poem. Although I do find much of Wordsworth, to coin a phrase, “a bit tedious.”

    Mr. She and I visited Tintern Abbey in 2005 (I think it was). It’s a beautiful site, peaceful in the way that my favorite church in the whole world is peaceful. There’s a nice snack shack just down the road where we enjoyed a delicious steak-and-ale pie. I remember, on my first sight of the ruins of Tintern Abbey, getting my poets a bit mixed up and understanding for the first time the line in Shakespeare’s Sonnet LXXIII (one of the sonnets on aging), “Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.” Such a powerful metaphor for what happens to us as we age, I’ve since found out.

    PS: You’ll get no argument from me on this: Keats was the best of ’em. This. Or This.

    • #6
    • June 5, 2020, at 8:54 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  7. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    She (View Comment):
    But, come on! Tintern Abbey is a wonderful poem. Although I do find much of Wordsworth, to coin a phrase, “a bit tedious.”

    Sure, it is a great poem. Even normally tedious writers can produce great works. There are also writers who start out in brilliance, and eventually fall into repetition (Stephen King especially) or nonsense, or hang themselves on some “great work” at the expense of their regular good works. A number of contemporary sci-fi / fantasy authors my wife has enjoyed over the years have done this – often by going woke (JK Rowling), or devolving into the pornographic or blasphemous (Patricia Briggs).

    • #7
    • June 5, 2020, at 9:04 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  8. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    She: Though this is often described as “the world’s first computer program,” and Lady Ada as “the first computer programmer,” it’s actually more of an explanatory trace of the steps that the machine would have to make to calculate the numbers. Just as notable an achievement, though.

    Pseudo-code, in a sense.

    Yes. As I used to say to department heads in the hospital I worked at for 20 years, when they said “I want you to install a program to fix the mess in my department,” — “Well. The first thing that you need to do is explain to me exactly what the ‘mess in your department’ actually is. Because if you can’t explain it, then there is no program that can be written to fix it.”

    • #8
    • June 5, 2020, at 9:05 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  9. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):
    But, come on! Tintern Abbey is a wonderful poem. Although I do find much of Wordsworth, to coin a phrase, “a bit tedious.”

    Sure, it is a great poem. Even normally tedious writers can produce great works. There are also writers who start out in brilliance, and eventually fall into repetition (Stephen King especially)

    Yeah. I am afraid that one of my favorites, Lee Child, has fallen into this.

    or nonsense, or hang themselves on some “great work” at the expense of their regular good works.

    I loved the initial Matthew Shardlake mysteries by C. J. Sansom. Then he got woke, and I haven’t enjoyed them so much since. And please do not get me started on Hilary Mantel.

    A number of contemporary sci-fi / fantasy authors my wife has enjoyed over the years have done this – often by going woke (JK Rowling)

    Yes, although she somewhat redeemed herself in my eyes with what is viewed as her TERF Tweet.

    or devolving into the pornographic or blasphemous (Patricia Briggs).

    OK, I missed her. My touchstone for the utterly dissolute, pointless, and poorly-written, is E.L. James and Fifty Shades of Grey (and following). The difference being, perhaps, that she wasn’t any good, even when times were good. Mommy porn for the desperate. Ugh.

    • #9
    • June 5, 2020, at 9:16 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  10. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    She (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    She: Though this is often described as “the world’s first computer program,” and Lady Ada as “the first computer programmer,” it’s actually more of an explanatory trace of the steps that the machine would have to make to calculate the numbers. Just as notable an achievement, though.

    Pseudo-code, in a sense.

    Yes. As I used to say to department heads in the hospital I worked at for 20 years, when they said “I want you to install a program to fix the mess in my department,” — “Well. The first thing that you need to do is explain to me exactly what the ‘mess in your department’ actually is. Because if you can’t explain it, then there is no program that can be written to fix it.”

    Oh gosh we get that all the time!

    Customer wanted us to put a time-delay in a product which has an emergency stop function – they didn’t want the user trying to restart the device during a fault condition, and wanted to delay the user by 15 seconds. OK so far, but they wired this in such a way that the moment the user takes his finger off the switch, power is cut to our device. 

    “We cannot have a 15 second delay if we have no power to the system.”
    But can you delay 15 seconds before turning back on?
    “You’ve cut power. There is no power for a timer.”
    But can your unit, you know, remember that it had an emergency shut off, and then delay 15 seconds when power is restored?
    “If the fault condition is still present when they hit the switch, our unit will detect that within milliseconds and still register a fault, and not turn on at all.”
    Well, we want it to wait 15 seconds.
    “Why? It detects the fault right away. What does 15 seconds buy you?”
    The spec calls for it, for safety.
    “The spec doesn’t need it – we sense the fault right away, and you added this to the spec 4 years after the circuit design was approved.”
    What if the operator keeps hitting the button?
    “We’ll keep faulting out in milliseconds, until he clears the problem. That’s what it’s designed to do. Why do you need 15 seconds?”
    The spec calls for it, for safety.

    Wash, rinse, repeat.

    • #10
    • June 5, 2020, at 9:24 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  11. The Reticulator Member

    She (View Comment):
    steak-and-ale pie

    !?

    • #11
    • June 5, 2020, at 10:09 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  12. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):
    steak-and-ale pie

    !?

    Something like this: https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/how_to_cook_steak_and_15585

    It was wonderful!

    • #12
    • June 5, 2020, at 10:12 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  13. The Reticulator Member

    She (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):
    steak-and-ale pie

    !?

    Something like this: https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/how_to_cook_steak_and_15585

    It was wonderful!

    Looks and sounds like something I shouldn’t be allowed to eat. But what are matchbox-sized chunks of steak? Matchboxes come different sizes, and I wonder if any of them wouldn’t result in pieces that are too big. 

    • #13
    • June 5, 2020, at 10:16 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  14. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):
    steak-and-ale pie

    !?

    Something like this: https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/how_to_cook_steak_and_15585

    It was wonderful!

    Looks and sounds like something I shouldn’t be allowed to eat. But what are matchbox-sized chunks of steak? Matchboxes come different sizes, and I wonder if any of them wouldn’t result in pieces that are too big.

    I’m guessing the sorts of matchboxes I grew up with, which would have been, perhaps, 1 1/2 x 2 1/2 x 1/2″ pieces. The idea is that it’s very tender by the time you’re finished, so you’ll be fine. I have to say that I’m inclined to cut them smaller myself, so I think, if you’re concerned about the size, that you’re free to do so without deleterious impact.

    I also cheat on the puff pastry and buy frozen, doubling up the layers.

    • #14
    • June 5, 2020, at 10:43 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  15. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    She (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):
    steak-and-ale pie

    !?

    Something like this: https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/how_to_cook_steak_and_15585

    It was wonderful!

    Looks and sounds like something I shouldn’t be allowed to eat. But what are matchbox-sized chunks of steak? Matchboxes come different sizes, and I wonder if any of them wouldn’t result in pieces that are too big.

    I’m guessing the sorts of matchboxes I grew up with, which would have been, perhaps, 1 1/2 x 2 1/2 x 1/2″ pieces. The idea is that it’s very tender by the time you’re finished, so you’ll be fine. I have to say that I’m inclined to cut them smaller myself, so I think, if you’re concerned about the size, that you’re free to do so without deleterious impact.

    I also cheat on the puff pastry and buy frozen, doubling up the layers.

    And thank you for turning this into an ersatz Friday Food and Drink Post. I’ve been remiss for the last 3 weeks or so because life has got in my way, but this totally works, and I’m tagging it as such.

    • #15
    • June 5, 2020, at 10:47 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  16. David Foster Member
    David Foster Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Very interesting and brilliant person. At one point, she wrote a letter to Babbage suggesting that she should be what we would now call the CEO of the Analytical Engine project, and he should be the CTO. He didn’t like the idea, but the project would probably have had a better chance of success had it been organized that way.

    I also saw recently that the government committee which reviewed the project after Babbage’s death, and recommended against funding it, did propose a specialized form of the machine for the specific purpose of solving simultaneous linear equations. Nothing came of it, though.

     

     

    • #16
    • June 5, 2020, at 6:39 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  17. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Not quite a Difference Engine, but not too shabby: First known Hollywood scene of a computer: 1950’s Destination Moon, later used at greater length in 1951’s When Worlds Collide (same producer, pioneering science fiction filmmaker George Pal)

     

    • #17
    • June 5, 2020, at 6:44 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  18. David Foster Member
    David Foster Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Not quite a Difference Engine, but not too shabby: First known Hollywood scene of a computer: 1950’s Destination Moon, later used at greater length in 1951’s When Worlds Collide (same producer, pioneering science fiction filmmaker George Pal)

    This is a mechanical analog computer, a differential analyzer. A group at Marshall University has built several (smaller versions) of these, believing that they can be of value in math education. I think they have a good case for this. See my post Retrotech–with a Future? for a discussion of mechanical analog computers in general and the Marshall project in particular.

     

     

    • #18
    • June 5, 2020, at 6:52 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  19. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    David Foster (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Not quite a Difference Engine, but not too shabby: First known Hollywood scene of a computer: 1950’s Destination Moon, later used at greater length in 1951’s When Worlds Collide (same producer, pioneering science fiction filmmaker George Pal)

    This is a mechanical analog computer, a differential analyzer. A group at Marshall University has built several (smaller versions) of these, believing that they can be of value in math education. I think they have a good case for this. See my post Retrotech–with a Future? for a discussion of mechanical analog computers in general and the Marshall project in particular.

    I agree that there’s a great deal of forgotten history of these devices that is still illuminating today. FDR science advisor Vannevar Bush published an influential 40s article in The Atlantic, “That We May Think”, about a hypertext-like electromechanical device called a Memex (memory extender) that could store, sort and manipulate data. The actual “prop” in the films started its “career” calculating artillery firing tables. 

    • #19
    • June 5, 2020, at 7:11 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  20. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    David Foster (View Comment):
    Very interesting and brilliant person. At one point, she wrote a letter to Babbage suggesting that she should be what we would now call the CEO of the Analytical Engine project, and he should be the CTO. He didn’t like the idea, but the project would probably have had a better chance of success had it been organized that way.

    I agree. He was a genius, but a bit of a crank, and she was a far better wordsmith.

    • #20
    • June 5, 2020, at 7:54 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  21. Isaiah's Job Member

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):
    Byron, the most iconoclastic of the lot, has the most prosaic resting place.

    Yes, but Byron was a better poet than Shelley or Writesrot Wordsworth (though not as good as Keats), and died a legitimate war hero in Greece, so I think he rather earned a more prosaic resting place in the end – he redeemed himself, after a fashion.

    Peasants. You’re all daft. Lyrical Ballads is one of the most important books of poetry in the English language, and Wordsworth wrote the best parts of it. The Idiot Boy makes me want to weep. So does The Female Vagrant. The Last of the Flock? Devastating. 

    I read it often. In fact, I read it last week. I have it in my hand right now! 

    • #21
    • June 5, 2020, at 10:56 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  22. SParker Member

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    Wash, rinse, repeat.

    So what was the resolution?

    You dredge up the horrible memory of Josef and the I/O Loop. Our ingenious control system was undergoing safety certification by the southern branch (the take-no-prisoners-don’t-f-with-us branch) of a certain German certifying agency. Josef was their man charged with looking at communications with sensors. As our trusty consultant and I were walking him through our code Josef asked: “where is the I/O loop?” By this he meant a “still-alive” handshake normally implemented in software, except in a system that implemented it in hardware, which ours did. We explain that it was unnecessary to do in software because it was done as a consequence of the hardware design ( “for free!” as our marketing department might say and probably did). He nods and says: “I see. Just one question. Where is the I/O Loop?”

    Now we understand that safety certifying agencies–especially ones that bear legal liability–are sensitive about things that bit them in the past. We surmise surely in 1957 an important input died silently and a controller operated on stale or nonsensical data until conditions became such that a small, picturesque Austrian village was wiped off the map. For lack of an I/O loop. We take turns explaining the problem (i.e., that there is no problem) to him, walking him through the hardware design and explaining its infallibility. He always sees our point. He always asks: “But where is the I/O loop?”

    In one of my off turns staring at the ceiling wondering how it was I got cast in a 3rd-rate existential play, it dawned on me what the correct way to view the problem (that was not a problem): A concept called vacuous application in grammatical derivations and, in logic, a “never-happens” term. It’s something that does nothing, which turns out to be very convenient in certain circumstances, and at the very least completely harmless. I politely excused myself , went into the lab, made the (one instruction) change, tested it, returned, showed it to Josef, explained the test, and…we all got on with our lives. A close run thing, as Wellington said of Waterloo.

    • #22
    • June 6, 2020, at 1:04 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  23. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member