Friday, August 3, 2007

Augusta Ada Byron-King (Lady Lovelace) (1815-1852)

Sierra Club


Is thy face like thy mother's, my fair child! / Ada! sole daughter of my house and of my heart? / When last I saw thy young blue eyes they smiled' / And then we parted, - not as now we part, / but with a hope. - Lord Byron on Ada from Childe Harold

I then suggested that she add some notes to Menabrea's memoir, an idea which was immediately adopted. We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced: I suggested several but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process. - from Charles Babbage's Passages from the Life of a Philosopher

It is desirable to guard against the possibility of exaggerated ideas that might arise as to the powers of the Analytical Engine. In considering any new subject, there is frequently a tendency, first, to overrate what we find to be already interesting or remarkable; and, secondly, by a sort of natural reaction, to undervalue the true state of the case, when we do discover that our notions have surpassed those that were really tenable. The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate any thing. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths. Its province is to assist us in making available what we are already acquainted with. This it is calculated to effect primarily and chiefly of course, through its executive faculties; but it is likely to exert an indirect and reciprocal influence on science itself in another manner. For, in so distributing and combining the truths and the formula of analysis, that they may become most easily and rapidly amenable to the mechanical combinations of the engine, the relations and the nature of many subjects in that science are necessarily thrown into new lights, and more profoundly investigated. - from Ada Byron-King's Notes


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Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace, was the daughter of the poet, Lord Byron. Five weeks after Ada was born Lady Byron asked for a separation from Lord Byron, and was awarded sole custody of Ada who she brought up to be a mathematician and scientist. At the age of 17 Ada was introduced to Mary Somerville, a remarkable woman who wrote a rendition of LaPlace's Celestial Mechanics. That 1831 text Mechanism of the Heavens was used at Cambridge. Though Somerville encouraged Ada in her mathematical studies, she also attempted to put mathematics and technology into an appropriate human context. At a dinner party at Mrs. Somerville's Ada heard Babbage's ideas for a new calculating engine, the Analytical Engine. He conjectured: what if a calculating engine could not only foresee but could act on that foresight. Ada was touched by the "universality of his ideas". Babbage worked on plans for this new engine and reported on the developments at a seminar in Turin, Italy in the autumn of 1841.

An Italian, Menabrea, wrote a summary of what Babbage described and published an article in French about the development. Ada translated Menabrea's article. When she showed Babbage her translation he suggested that she add her own notes, which turned out to be three times the length of the original article. Letters between Babbage and Ada flew back and forth filled with fact and fantasy. In her article, published in 1843, Lady Lovelace's prescient comments included her predictions that such a machine might be used to compose complex music, to produce graphics, and would be used for both practical and scientific use. She was correct. When inspired Ada could be very focused and a mathematical taskmaster. Ada suggested to Babbage writing a plan for how the engine might calculate Bernoulli numbers. This plan, is now regarded as the first "computer program." A software language developed by the U.S. Department of Defense was named "Ada" in her honor in 1979. [Adapted from Agnes Scott College]

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