S otheby’s upcoming sale, The Erwin Tomash Library on the History of Computing in London on 18 and 19 September features an important work by Ada Lovelace, one of the early pioneers of computing, and widely regarded as the first computer programmer.
The only legitimate child of the famed Romantic poet Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace’s interest in mathematics and computing was no accident. Her mother, Byron’s wife Annabella Milbanke, herself highly educated in mathematics and science, had deliberately steered her only child towards these more rational disciplines and away from literature and the arts in the hope that doing so might prevent Ada suffering the melancholic, immoral and violent tempers that had afflicted her father. Towards the end of Isabella’s marriage to Byron, she had feared for his sanity, and considered the emotional excesses of Romantic poetry partly to blame.
As a child Ada was preoccupied with drawing fanciful machines, and was fascinated with the new developments in engineering throughout the Industrial Revolution. Around age 12, she poured her enthusiasm into designing a steam powered flying machine. She observed the flight of birds, pondered appropriate materials and the correct sizing for the wings she would need to create, and created an illustrated guide to construction which she entitled ‘Flyology’. However, her relationship with computers began in 1833, when she met mathematics professor and “father of the computer”, Charles Babbage. They became close friends, with Babbage describing her as “that 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,”
Babbage shared with Ada his plans for a highly complicated new machine called the Analytical Engine, which had the fundamental elements of a modern computer. Following a lecture by Babbage in France in which he discussed the proposed machine, Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea published an article describing it, and Ada was given the task of translating the piece. She was encouraged to add her own notes, as she had such an advanced understanding of it from her conversations with Babbage.
With the addition of Ada’s notes, the article — Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator — grew to three times its original length. She used the opportunity to explore the potential of computing machines beyond their primary role as number-processing machines. She suggested their capacity to run algorithmic programs, that might enable them to manipulate symbols and even create music. Babbage had proposed some ideas for basic programs the machine might run, but Lovelace’s were by far the most elaborate and fully-formed. She described how to break down the algebra into simple formulae the machine could process, and how to code them as instructions.
Together, her notes are visionary, seeing the potential in computers as machines that, given the right inputs and programming, could be used for a wide range of tasks. It’s the work of an exceptionally talented mathematician, in a time when men dominated academia. Had she been a man, one of her early tutors observed, she could have become “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence”. Sadly, she died a few years after the publication of this work, aged 36.