Tuesday, 15 October 2013

For the Love of Ada or Was Babbage a Cabbage?

Today is Ada Lovelace Day

To understand why Ada Lovelace, nee Augusta Ada Byron, is celebrated on October 15 each year it is important to understand a little of the history of computers.
Until the end of the 19th century the term computer applied to a person who calculated things. During that century the work of Charles Babbage caused people to realise machines never get tired and can perform calculations much faster and more accurately than any team of human computers ever could.
If we ignore the abacus then it is generally accepted that the first mechanical computer or automatic computing engine concept was Babbage's Difference Engine of 1822.Unfortunately, because of funding he was never able to complete a full-scale functional version of this machine. 
Analytical EngineHowever, in June1991  the Science Museum in London completed the Difference Engine No 2, using Babbage's plans, for the bicentennial year of his birth and nine years later completed the printing mechanism. 

Babbage went on to propose the first general mechanical computer, the Analytical Engine which contained  an Arithmetical Logic Unit, basic flow control and an integrated memory.In layman's terms, this was the first machine which could hold a programme and process calculations using that programme. (If my  simplification of this is inaccurate please forgive me).  What I mean to say is: this is the first machine which I would call a computer rather than a calculator. Once again Babbage was unable to fund the construction of his theoretical designs and it was left to his son, Henry, to have a stab at it in 1910.
Now we can consider our friend Ada.
Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, was born Augusta Ada Byron on 10 December 1815 as the only legitimate child to the poet Lord Byron and his wife
Anne Isabella Byron. All of Byron's other children were born out of wedlock. Byron separated from his wife a month after Ada was born and left England forever four months later, eventually dying of disease in the Greek War of Independence when Ada was eight years old. Ada's mother remained bitter at Lord Byron and promoted Ada's interest in mathematics and logic in an effort to prevent her from developing what she saw as the insanity seen in her father.  Ada, however, remained interested in him despite this and was, upon her eventual death, buried next to him at her request. Ada was employed by Babbage to translate a report on his Analytical Engine by the Italian Menebera which she did whilst adding 20,000 words of her own commentary. Her notes reveal that her understanding of what computers could do and might be capable of was much greater than her employer's. These notes on the Analytical Engine include what is recognised as the first algorithm intended to be processed by a machine: because of this, she is often considered the world's first computer programmer. to illustrate her foresight consider this extract from her notes:
The Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine...Supposing, for instance, 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.

This view of Ada as the superior intellect of the relationship is not without its detractors but when the USA Department of Defence asked Honeywell Bull to design a computer language to replace the hundreds currently in use the name it was given was ADA.  This is an international standard recognised by the US Military.  The Military Standard reference manual was approved on December 10, 1980 (Ada Lovelace's birthday), and given the number MIL-STD-1815 in honour of Ada Lovelace's birth year.
Babbage had some understanding of her ability as demonstrated in his description of her to Michael Faraday as:
 An enchantress who has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects could have exerted over it.

Ada went off the rails a little later in life as she had numerous affairs and took to gambling with some of her men-friends. Her attempts to create an algorithm which would beat the odds failed, leaving her with large debts. She died of uterine cancer aged 36 and during her lengthy  suffering her mother prevented friends from visiting her until Ada embraced the Christian faith.

Notwithstanding her personal failings her significance in the development of computing should not be underestimated.
It is a shame, in my view, that the date chosen to celebrate Ada has no significance  to her life but was selected by the Women's Lib movement and hi-jacked by them thus detracting from the glory which should be Ada's.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't know that.
    And I doubt many of the software engineers I worked with in the 90s knew that either.


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