Sunday, March 13, 2016

Ada's Algorithm by James Essinger

Ada Lovelace, daughter of poet Lord Byron, is arguably one of the first computer scientists in history. She wrote what some considered the first computer program about a century before any computer was built, especially anything we would recognize as computer. James Essinger presents a summary of her life, and particularly a defense of her accomplishments, in Ada’s Algorithm.

In any discussion relating to the Byrons, it’s easy to get distracted by Lovelace’s father. In addition to being a famous poet, he lived a high life (often on the money of others) and had many lovers. Lady Byron, who separated from Byron and preserved her family wealth from his extravagances, made sure their only daughter had minimal contact with him. Lovelace had an education in math and science very unlike other women of her time because Lady Byron hoped it might counterbalance any of the excesses the girl may have inherited from the wild Byrons.

Lovelace took to math quite well. In a later age, she might have become a professional mathematician. In her own 1800s, her tutors sometimes complained that she reached too far for a woman, and strove to grasp at realms of math that only men had the stamina to explore. Fortunately her mother, and later her husband, William, Lord King, Baron of Ockham (later elevated to Earl of Lovelace), did not let such foolishness restrain her mathematical education.

She was still quite young, only 17, when she met the much older Charles Babbage, inventor of the partly build Difference Engine and never built Analytical Engine. The Analytical Engine was a calculating machine that could be programmed using punch cards. Though it was a mechanical device, not an electronic computer, Babbage’s structure (processor, memory, input and output) is the same structure of modern computers. Not only did Babbage conceive of computers a century before one was built, he drew plans for substantially completing such a machine, though the manufacturing technology of the time could not have made the parts required.

Lovelace was a friend of Babbage for many years. In 1843, about 10 years after they met, Lovelace published a paper explaining the operation and capabilities of Babbage’s machine. She had an even larger vision of it than the inventor. He saw the Analytical Engine as a tool for performing complex calculations accurately. She saw that it could do more than mathematical calculations; it could manipulate any symbols in almost any way instructed, so it might “compose” music by manipulating notes according so some rules, or perform logical functions, or handle any other information that might be digitized. She foresaw that what we now call computer science would become a discipline distinct from math.

She thought the paper might be better received if it was unsigned, but at the encouragement of her husband she published it under her initials. It was quickly discovered that “A. A. L.” was a woman, and almost a quickly dismissed as irrelevant. It wasn’t until the 20th Century, when people were actually building digital computers, that the work of Babbage and Lovelace received some respect. Though modern computers do not have a technological connection to the Analytical Engine that was never built, it certainly has a strong conceptual connection.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Essinger, James. Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age. 2013. Brooklyn: Melville House, 2014.