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Suppose I asked you to argue the importance and societal contributions of the computer. I can hear you scoffing. The computer is an omnipresent and all-powerful force in our lives. Rather than ask you what you might use it for, in our modern era, it would be simpler to ask what you don’t use it for. All governments and world commerce depend on computers, all of our collective human knowledge is stored within computers, a computer fits in your pocket (and is increasingly becoming a societal necessity), and we’re – you and I – interacting through computers at this very moment. Beyond that, computers and their operators are consistently pushing the envelope on what they can achieve – like a robot that paints or virtual worlds that “live.”
So, clearly, it’s silly for me to ask you to defend the computer, one of the most important, powerful, and ubiquitous tools on the planet.
182 years ago, though, the computer needed a proponent – what’s more, it needed a visionary, someone to see beyond what it was to what it could be.
That person was a Victorian Countess.
Lord Byron, the famous English poet, wanted a son, and was dismayed when Lady Byron gave birth to a baby girl in the winter of 1815. Her name was Augusta, but her father called her Ada. He and Lady Byron separated a month later, and Lord Byron made no attempts to claim his parental rights. Ada’s mother was also distant, and Ada suffered a childhood of debilitating illness. But she was not alone; she had her curiosity.
Ada dove head-first into mathematics, technology, and science. At twelve, like famous innovator da Vinci before her, she tried to construct a set of functioning wings for humans to wear. Though she failed at creating a contraption for achieving flight, her extensive research into birds, wings, and flying allowed her to write and illustrate a book of her findings, Flyology.
Interest in mathematics and mechanics was uncommon for Victorian women. Despite this, Ada’s curiosity and analytical nature were supported by her mother, who perceived these traits as the only salvation from the “insanity” she feared her daughter would inherit from the dark-hearted Lord Byron. Ada was given access to tutors, resources, and some of the greatest English minds of the era. Her intellect grew.
By the time she was presented at court, Ada’s brilliant mind made her the most “popular belle of the season.” In 1835, she wed Lord William King. William became Earl of Lovelace in 1838, and Lady Ada King became Ada, Countess of Lovelace.
Ada Lovelace was a woman inspired by the cutting edge. She didn’t just like number crunching, but the questions numbers could raise as well. As her (mostly male) peers in court devised new tools and technologies, Ada wondered about the role of these advancements for both individuals and collective society as a whole. Though she described herself as an analyst, she called her approach and mindset “poetical science.” Ada believed in metaphysics as much as mathematics, and did not hold the two concepts at odds. To Ada, both imagination and intuition were required to produce revelations about the hidden worlds around us.
In 1833, at age 18, Ada was introduced to Charles Babbage. Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer” had invented a prototype of the first mechanical computer, known as the “Difference Machine,” and invited Countess Lovelace to see it. Ada was as impressed with the machine as Babbage was with Ada’s intellect. Ada, excited by the new world of mathematical possibilities, tried to see Babbage and his new machine whenever she could.
The Difference Machine, also known as the “Difference Engine,” was a large and wildly complex machine powered by a hand crank. In essence, the machine was a mechanical calculating device capable of automatically tabulating polynomial mathematical functions. At Ada’s first introduction to the “thinking machine,” it raised numbers to the 2nd and 3rd powers and solved a Quadratic equation… incredibly impressive feats for the time.
But the British government wasn’t happy. They had bank-rolled Babbage’s development of the Difference Machine, and while they were impressed with its mathematical results, the entire machine was too large and complex for the Royal Astronomical Society to mass-produce in a way that would be economically feasible. The government wanted a smaller, simpler Difference Engine. But Charles Babbage didn’t want to make a simpler machine.
He wanted to make something much more complicated.
Babbage’s efforts in trying to design a better calculator lead him to conceive of what he called an “Analytical Engine.” This advanced calculator would have an arithmetic logic unit, control flow, and internal memory storage (all features of modern computers). The Analytical Engine was more than a better calculator – it was the first design for the general purpose computer.
Such an incredible technological concept was difficult for the public to understand. Most people didn’t grasp how this new idea was any different than the calculating machine already constructed by Babbage. The government only valued the Difference Engine’s ability to more effectively crunch numbers and produce numerical tables, and so was becoming increasingly upset that it was paying Babbage incredible amounts of money to develop added bells and whistles it didn’t want or need. The government began considering the project an enormous failure and a waste of funds.
In 1840, Babbage gave a lecture at the University of Turin attempting to explain his proposed Analytical Engine. The concept of the machine flew over the public’s heads.
Babbage’s lecture on the Analytical Engine was transcribed and published in French. Because of her proximity to the project, Ada Lovelace was commissioned to transcribe the lecture into English. She understood the machine better than anyone but Babbage himself – and even then, Charles was too close to his idea to be able to effectively sell the concept to a broad audience.
In 1843, Ada spent nine months translating the entirety of the lecture into English. But she went further than that. She extensively annotated the information with her own notes and insights. These notes themselves made up more content than the entire original lecture transcript, and did the heavy lifting in explaining to a skeptical scientific community why the Analytical Engine differed from and outclassed its predecessor. As an illustration of her point, Ada wrote, in painstaking detail, a method of using the Analytical Engine to calculate the Bernoulli number sequence. This is considered the first computer program, and Ada is generally considered to be the first computer programmer.
The engine was never completed (due to funding and manufacturing limitations of the era), and Ada’s program was never tested. However, Lovelace’s writings on the matter were incredibly well received in her own day, and would greatly influence many of the people who would go on to make the modern computer a reality – like Alan Turing.
Ada didn’t see the Analytical Engine as its inventor did. Babbage was obsessed with numbers and faster and faster ways to compute numbers. That’s all the “computer” was to him: a way to increasingly escalate the speed and complexity with which math could be done. Ada’s creative impulses and view of “poetical science” told her that the concept of the computer was greater than that. Numbers are just representative symbols, and math is just a means to find order… and Ada’s mind was aflame with the possibilities of a machine that could “think” with rules and communicate with symbols. In her notes, Ada wonders about the world of possibilities surrounding the Analytical Engine. She muses that the machine could be made to manipulate words instead of numbers, and wonders if the machine could be used to make art, such as composing a symphony.
Ada passed from a tragic struggle with cancer at the age of 36. The world was robbed of any more inspiring ideas her brilliant mind may have had to give, but what we’re left with is still an incredible wonder, delivered to society by a woman born long before her time. Ada’s writings showed an intellectual shift in the human understanding of what machines were capable of. Though something on the level of the Analytical Engine wouldn’t be made a reality until the 1940s, it was Ada Lovelace who first asserted that computational machines could be used not just for calculation, but for so much more.
The next time you use any computing device for something more than a calculator, remember the woman who made it possible.
Does it make you wonder what you could make possible?
Are you interested in hearing the complete story of Paul and Dulcinea? Watch the video (nominated for Best Short Film at the 2021 Vail and Portland Film Festivals) for more info.
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