Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ada Lovelace

Jennie Rigg and Alison Wheeler tell us that today is Ada Lovelace Day. Apparently, you are meant to mark it by drawing attention to a woman who has excelled in technology.

I am afraid that, unlike Jennie and Alison, I do not know enough about technology to do that. But I can tell you about Ada Lovelace.

Ada was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron, but she never met her father, who died in Greece when she was seven. Perhaps wishing her daughter to be unlike her poetical father, her mother Lady Byron saw to it that Ada received tutoring in mathematics and music. And she had a remarkable aptitude for such subjects, producing a design for a flying machine when she was only 12.

Ada and Lady Byron moved in elite London society, and there she met Charles Babbage, Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge. Babbage had invented his Difference Engine, an early calculating machine.

Babbage made plans in 1834 for a new Analytical Engine, but his Parliamentary sponsors refused to support it because the Difference Engine was unfinished. Babbage found support abroad.

In 1842 the Italian mathematician Louis Menebrea published a work in French on the subject of the Analytical Engine. Babbage enlisted Ada to translate for it. During a nine-month period in 1842-3 she worked on the article and a set of notes that she appended to it. Those notes are the foundation of her reputation.

According to Women in Science:
Ada called herself "an Analyst (& Metaphysician)," and the combination was put to use in the Notes. She understood the plans for the device as well as Babbage but was better at articulating its promise. She rightly saw it as what we would call a general-purpose computer. It was suited for "developping [sic] and tabulating any function whatever. . . the engine [is] the material expression of any indefinite function of any degree of generality and complexity." Her Notes anticipate future developments, including computer-generated music.
In 1835 Ada married William King. When King inherited a title in 1838, they became the Earl and Countess of Lovelace. They had three children.

Ada died of cancer in 1852 at the age of 37. She was buried beside the father she never knew in Hucknall church.

To be honest, most of this is cribbed from the Women in Science article, but I did come across Ada when writing about Newstead Abbey and the Robin Hood Line.

I suppose I have to record that the Babbage Pages accord her a less prominent role in the history of computing:
It is often suggested that Ada was the world's first programmer. This is nonsense: Babbage was, if programmer is the right term. After Babbage came a mathematical assistant of his, Babbage's eldest son, Herschel, and possibly Babbage's two younger sons. Ada was probably the fourth, fifth or six person to write the programmes. Moreover all she did was rework some calculations Babbage had carried out years earlier. Ada's calculations were student exercises. Ada Lovelace figures in the history of the Calculating Engines as Babbage's interpretress, his `fairy lady'. As such her achievement was remarkable.
But what do they know?


Anonymous said...

Many years ago I worked in Cobham in Surrey. Ada was from near there. What I recall as her old family house had become a restaurant which we occassionally went to, along with the pub nearby - a bit more frequently.

At the time the work we were doing was for the MoD - coding something in Ada, the mandatory programming language for much such work at the time. That was of course named after her.

Pete said...

Well, as my contribution to Women in Science, an interesting parallel to Ada L was Rear Admiral Grace Hopper who wrote the first compiled language and is accepted as the author of the COBOL language, released 1960 and currently processing 90% of the World's financial transactions.

Interestingly, despite being so widespread, the language is very rarely taught in the UK and firms don't take on trainees - so much COBOL development here in the UK is being done by Indian Computer Science graduates working for companies such as Infosys - often working off-shore.

But that's nothing to do with the
admirable Admiral Hopper.