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“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 anonymous.
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.Published in