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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.