Thursday, 25 March 2010

ADA LOVELACE AND THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE...


Ada Lovelace 1815-1852

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, was the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron and his wife Anne Isabella Milbanke. However, Ada never knew the father who deserted his wife only a month after her birth and who died when his daughter was nine years old.

Byron

As a child, Ada was often ill and suffered serious complications following a severe bout of measles. After that her domineering and hypochondriac mother kept her in isolation whilst also attempting to allay any trace of ‘immorality’ or inherited poetic tendencies. She insisted that her daughter was tutored in music and mathematics. She must have been very relieved when Ada proved to be gifted in scientific areas  - the child even going so far as to produce a design for a flying machine.

Charles Babbage 1791-1871

Ada’s talents really came to fruition when, at the age of seventeen, she met with Charles Babbage, Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University. Babbage had already begun his work on the world's first mechanical computers, even though his machines were never constructed with parliament refusing to sponsor his plans for the ‘Difference’ and ‘Analytical’ Engines. 

Ada Lovelace

Babbage did find some sympathy abroad when aided by the Italian mathematician, Louis Menebrea. And when he returned to England again, Ada - his little Enchantress of Numbers - helped him with translating Menabrea’s notes. From these she formed an algorithm: a code to enable the actual processing of the machines that her mentor had in mind, even though they were never constructed during their inventor's lifetime. But, as such, she is now viewed as being the first computer programmer, and there is also some evidence that Ada suggested punch cards for use with the Analytical machine, even suggesting that its scope might aid the composition of music.

Ockham Park in Surrey

Ada married the 1st Earl of Lovelace, afterwards residing at Ockham Park in Surrey where the couple produced three children. But Ada was destined to die when young. Suffering from uterine cancer, at the age of 37 she perished from an excess of medicinal blood-letting - at the same age and from the same cause as Lord Byron before. She was then buried beside the famed father who, in life, she had never known.



Finally, if you like the idea of ‘steampunk’ Victorian fiction, then why not try reading The Difference Machine, an alternate historical novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. In their combined story, the Analytical Engine has been built, changing the balance of world power. Babbage has great political influence. The Prime Minister is the scandalous Lord Byron (still living, rather than dying in Greece) who heads the Industrial Radical Party: a party in which his daughter, Ada, is also a prominent figure. Her computer ‘punch cards’ have been developed to enable a gambling ‘modus’ – betting being a penchant of our heroine, just as it was in real life.
And, with steampunk in mind, the VV would like to end this post by sharing something seem recently on the Datamancer website; a wonderful hybrid laptop encased in a Victorian music box – something that Ada Lovelace would surely have loved to own.



10 comments:

  1. Absouletly fascinating as usual. Women translating mathematical codes. Why were we not taught about these wonderful women in school?

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  2. I haven't read The Difference Engine, but it's interesting that Gibson et al appear to have made Byron a more sympathetic figure by imagining that he had close dealings with his daughter in that alternate reality. He doesn't really deserve their imaginative rehabilitation, in my view.

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  3. Hello Bellanta - In the Difference Engine, Byron isn't actually a likeable figure, and his relationship with his wife and daughter is one based more on abuse then affection.

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  4. My book Prose 1997 - 2008 includes an essay on Ada Lovelace and how she combined both poetry and science in her life.

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  5. What an excellent post! Found it very interesting - I had some vague knowledge about Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage but connection to Byron was a revelation!

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  6. Fabulous post, as always! And I love the steampunk laptop (this is JUST what I want to write on).

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  7. Thank you, Jan and Lidian - and yes, that laptop is amazing!

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  8. WE just missed Ada Lovelace Day on Oct 7th. "Ada Lovelace Day aims to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire"

    http://findingada.com/about-finding-ada/

    Also, it looks like Datamancer is selling some of his laptops
    http://www.datamancer.net/laptop-preorders.htm

    Though surely the wily Victorians would have incorporated a set of telescopic legs, maybe a fold down shooting stick to match?

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  9. Please note that the photo labelled as 'Ockham Park in Surrey' is actually Horsley Park in Surrey, now a Devere Venue.

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