Astonishing Science. Spectacular museum.
Ada Lovelace (1815-52) was a computer visionary who saw the potential of the computer over a century before it was created.
As the daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron, and the admired intellect Annabella Milbanke, she was a celebrity from birth. Lovelace sought to find balance between the two alternative parts of her world: the romanticism and creativity of her father and the rationality and science of her mother. She described her approach as a ‘poetical science’, bringing imagination and ingenuity to her collaboration with the renowned mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage.
In Victorian Britain printed mathematical tables were used by navigators, architects, engineers, mathematicians and bankers, but these tables were calculated by human clerks (literally called ‘calculators’) and were riddled with errors. Charles Babbage became interested in mechanising the production of these tables and developed a series of diagrams and prototype engines that enabled him to explore his ideas.
Babbage designed two types of engine, Difference Engines and Analytical Engines. The Difference Engines were based on the method of finite differences, a mathematical method that uses pure addition to solve polynomial equations.
In contrast, Babbage’s Analytical Engines mark a progression towards a general-purpose machine using addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. With a processor, memory and input and output device, the architecture embodies many of the characteristics of modern computers.
Ada Lovelace’s reputation comes from her important work interpreting Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. After listening to a talk Babbage gave in Turin in 1840, the Italian engineer Luigi Menabrea wrote a paper describing the principles of the machine. Ada then translated this paper from French, but in doing so she added lengthy notes and a further understanding that even Babbage himself had not achieved.
Babbage was impressed with her work, describing her as ‘the Enchantress of Number’ and addressed her in a letter as ‘my dear and much admired interpreter’. Lovelace had begun to understand the significance of the Analytical Engine and its implications for computational method. She saw that the Analytical Engine opened up a whole new opportunity for machines that could manipulate symbols rather than just numbers.
Ada Lovelace’s achievements are perhaps even more exceptional given the attitudes of Victorian Britain towards the intellectual pursuits of women, particularly in mathematics.