The Amazing Adding Subtracting Composing Creating Do-Everything Machine

By Campbell, Paulette Walker | Humanities, January/February 2003 | Go to article overview

The Amazing Adding Subtracting Composing Creating Do-Everything Machine


Campbell, Paulette Walker, Humanities


Ada Lovelace Envisions Modern Computing

ADA LOVELACE WAS A SCIENTIST AND A COUNTESS. Her passion for mathematics was unfettered by the popular view that women had frail brains that could be injured by serious work in mathematics. Her interests ranged from machinery to anatomy, and in 1843 she wrote a visionary text explaining the process now known as computer programming.

She came of age during a period of scientific optimism, when anything was believed possible. Ada was only twelve years old when she wrote of her plans to build an airplane: I've got a scheme about a steam engine. It is to make a thing in the form of a horse with a steam engine in the inside so contrived as to move an immense pair of wings fixed to the outside of the horse in such a manner as to carry it up into the air when a person sits on its back. I think of writing a book of flyology illustrated with plates if I ever invent a method of flying.

Lovelace's life and contributions to the field of computing are profiled in a new hour-long documentary, To Dream Tomorrow. Filmmakers John Fuegi and Jo Francis of Flare Productions, Inc. produced the film as part of a series called "Women of Power," supported by the Maryland Humanities Council and the NEH-funded Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.

Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron in December 1815 to the Romantic poet Lord George Gordon Byron. Her mother, Anne Isabella Milbanke, was a mathematician whom Lord Byron once referred to as "the princess of parallelograms." Lovelace's parents separated five weeks after she was born.

Ada received her education at home, according to the societal norms for a girl of her social class. Ada's mother designed her curriculum and encouraged her not only in what were then considered appropriate subjects for girls music and poetry-but also in subjects usually reserved for boys: mathematics, science, and geography.

"Ada must have benefited enormously from her mother's intellect," says the Earl of Lytton, Lovelace's great-great grandson. When Ada was thirteen, she became ill-possibly with the measles-and was temporarily paralyzed. She was confined to her bed for a year and a half.

She did not seem to mind the isolation of an invalid, says historian David Herbert. "She carried on with her studies and appears in the main to have welcomed the chance to study alone."

At seventeen, she visited the home of the famous mathematician Charles Babbage. Babbage had built a model of a locomotive-sized calculator called the Difference Engine, a machine that could be programmed to perform mathematical functions and print the results. He had a model of his engine as well as other mechanical devices on display in his home in London.

"Ada was one of the only people who really understood, perhaps in a kind of intuitive way, the potential of what she was seeing that day when she and many other people saw Babbage's Difference Engine on display," says Sadie Plant, former director of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at University of Warwick in England. "Maybe it's the fact that she had been to some extent as a young woman excluded from many of the more orthodox channels of education. Maybe it was that that gave her a more open mind and allowed her to really see where this thing could go." Shortly after seeing Babbage's machine, she was intro

duced to Mary Fairfax Somerville of Scotland, the first woman scientist to be published by the Royal Society. In Somerville, Lovelace found a mentor and a compatible

soul, whose friendship would last through decades of correspondence. She once wrote, My Dear Mrs. Somerville, I'm afraid that when a machine, or a lecture, or anything of the kind, comes in my way, I have no regard for time, space, or any ordinary obstacles. I think you must be fond enough of those things, to sympathize with my eagerness about them.

The expectations of the Industrial Revolution stimulated Ada's interest in machines. …

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