Magazine article The Spectator

Ada's Vision

Magazine article The Spectator

Ada's Vision

Article excerpt

Those of us who use computers at home and work now take them for granted as we once did the typewriter. The growth of PCs, though, has been a fairly recent phenomenon, the past ten years, perhaps. Until six years ago I was still using an Amstrad of which I have fond memories, though when it broke down I had to enter the age of Windows and emails and endure the pain barrier through which those not naturally computer literate have to pass.

I knew that the development of the computer quickened and came of age in the last century but what I hadn't realised was that it actually began in the 1820s, in London no less; that is, until I heard a marvellous programme on Radio Four this week, Inventors Imperfect, The Enchantress of Numbers (Monday). My ignorance of Charles Babbage, the pioneer of the nearest thing to the first computer, was almost complete apart from dimly knowing of the existence of this mathematician. I must confess I hadn't heard of his fascinating collaborator, Ada, Countess of Lovelace, a mathematical prodigy whose vision of the future of computers Babbage himself didn't see.

Adam Hart-Davis, the presenter of this four-part series about inventors, brought her alive for us, though it didn't take that much as she was a colourful, insatiably curious, brilliant young woman who was the legitimate daughter of Lord Byron. She clearly inherited some of his talent, for science, though, not poetry. This was partly deliberate as her mother, Lady Byron, was so appalled by her husband's excesses that she was determined to ensure that her daughter from the age of three would not succumb to the same genes and set about `the annihilation of every delusion of the imagination', as she put it. Fortunately, Ada was precociously gifted at mathematics.

In 1833 at the age of 17 she went to see Babbage's number machine. As Hart-Davis pointed out, she realised that this engine was beginning to blur the distinction between the world of mechanics and the world of the mind. Her vision, he added, was a world in which machines could think, something that doesn't appear to have occurred to Babbage, if I understood the programme correctly. A process of furious collaboration began with Ada adding her own interpretations to his paper on the subject, taking it forward and expanding its possibilities.

A biographer of Babbage, Doron Swade, a curator at the Science Museum in London, explained that the inventor's machine had extraordinary calculating power. …

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