Friday Giant 3: … and Babbage.

Back in the mists of Internet pre-history, there was such a thing as a Sharp PC-500. Ever heard of bubble memory? If you’re any younger than me, you almost certainly haven’t. Be glad. That screen? 80 char x 8 ln can be a little weird to work on. A printer built into the back of a laptop? Actually, a great idea in principle but the resultant luggable was rather heavy and vulnerable to failures. But my first steps as an 8-year old proto-geek were taken using this computer, on which my father taught me how to first create a font for Tolkein’s Angerthas, and then do the necessary hackery to teach the computer how to use that font in WYSIWYG and print display. While doing so, he also told me about this Friday’s giant.

Child of one of the greatest celebrities of the day, a mathematical prodigy and a person of remarkable moral fibre and agile intellect, they have a programming language named for them, and are remembered as the genius who realised in mathematical language the potential a collaborator had recognised in Jacquard’s Loom. Their paradigm for symbolic general computing was, eventually, proved in practice to work as designed. But eventually was over a hundred and fifty years later, and the engine in question is remembered under the name of the man who thought he could build one (he couldn’t) rather than the woman who thought she could program one (who could).

Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace.

Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace.

Ada Lovelace would have been a truly extraordinary person in any era, and she happened to be born at a nexus point in European intellectual history. As Mary Wollestonecroft and George Eliot stand within the literary world, so Lovelace stands within the history of mathematics. The co-incidence of birth certainly affected her career, though. Had she not been the daughter of Lord Byron, she might have had more fun in life and would probably not have been driven by her mother into the sciences and mathematics as an armour against poetry. That accident of history led her to develop one of the most creative intellects England has ever seen.

Quoting from here:

In 1842, an Italian mathematician, Louis Menebrea, published a memoir in French on the subject of the Analytical Engine. Babbage enlisted Ada as translator for the memoir, and during a nine-month period in 1842-43, she worked feverishly on the article and a set of Notes she appended to it. These are the source of her enduring fame.

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.

lovelacepg5I am just a year younger than Lovelace was when she died. In her short life she ignored or overcame so many restraints and obstacles to her pursuit of beautiful logic: but she is to this day a giant of the Enlightenment who is far too often overlooked. There are a great many interesting things that are entirely true about Ada Lovelace, but I would strongly suggest that the reader discovers them via the end-notes attached to each installment of this work of historical and comedic genius. 2D Goggles: Babbage and Lovelace (Fight Crime!), created by Sydney Padua and apparently far advanced from when I last checked it, is brilliant, funny, warped, beautifully drawn, historically accurate except when it isn’t, and annotated with all sorts of wonderfully interesting things and tempestuous people from the high age of Victorian engineering. The comic features, among other attractions: The Difference Engine! Queen Victoria! Steam Trains! A runaway Economic Model! Wellington’s horse! And Isambard Kingdom Brunel with an unfeasibly large cigar! Read it. You’ll laugh, frequently. You’ll know a great deal more about the real Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace, and her pet buffoon Charles Babbage. And you’ll never again listen to any self-entitled basement bandit who tries to tell you girls don’t do math.

I have to say as a personal note that while Babbage needed a business manager more desperately than anyone else in history, and few people besides Lovelace would have had enough obsession with the Engines to see the project through the inevitable calamities, Lovelace had problems of her own which would have hampered the achievement of the steam-powered information age. To the ‘Byron Devil’ I believe we can give the name of ‘manic-depression’, and immediately after the Notes thing she turned her attention with personal urgency to the field of brain chemistry. I have to say, respect to Ada for recognizing it as a neurological problem; one, however, that she really needed to be born 150 years later to study.
                — Sydney Padua

Grease-stained girls; an obsession since long before Firefly.


3 Responses to “Friday Giant 3: … and Babbage.”

  1. 2 Helen 20/03/2013 at 10:07 pm

    Great choice of giant. I just want to append a link to Ada Lovelace Day, the annual celebration of other female Giants of maths, engineering and science to provide role models and inspiration for young women and girls.

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March 2013
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Per Argument Ad Astra

Politics, history, economics and rampant speculation from a victim of the Great Recession, currently at large in the West Midlands.

"When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters."
                -- Adam Smith

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