Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ada Lovelace is Computing All of the Things

...way before we even had computers.

Lord Byron is fine as far as it goes. I mean, he had some poetry, kept a pet bear on campus when he was in college, and was the first real modern celebrity (seriously, somebody got paid to study whether or not his celebrity status was "modern". Awesome). His wife coined the term Byromania to refer to the craze.

But his daughter is basically the personification of awesome.

Ada Lovelace was raised by a mother who attempted to strip away any similarities the girl had to her father - Lord Byron and his wife separated a month after Ada was born. There was some logic behind this: Lord Byron was hugely unfaithful and mentally unstable. He didn't exactly recommend himself as a person.

But Ada seemed destined from the very beginning to follow in her father's larger-than-life footsteps. She was brilliant, witty, and charming - most people who didn't like her to begin with recanted their words later (as in the case of John Hobhouse, the only man to describe her unkindly on paper). Her mother focused all of Ada's education on mathematics in an attempt to shield Ada's mind from the insanity Lord Byron seemed to suffer from (because poetry = insanity, or something). Ada was a huge flirt and a reckless gambler, and deathly ill most of the time besides. Everything about her was measured in extremes.

Check out those sleeves.
The most fascinating thing about Ada, that history seems to forget because history is a jerk, is that she was the first person to visualize the potential applications of a computer. Keep in mind that at this time, all automated computing was theoretical in nature. The mathematicians who theorized on it saw, at best, a powerful calculator.

Ada realized that the breadth of computing possibilities was far beyond what anyone had imagined up until that point. She translated an Italian mathematician's memoir about a proposed Analytical Engine, and in order to explain it, wrote a series of notes and appendices that were longer than the memoir itself. In her notes, Ada not only discussed but calculated the potential of computers... and created the world's first computer algorithm.

It looked like this. No, I don't understand it either.
She also talked about the theoretical non-mathematic potential of the computer:
[The Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine...
Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.
Ada was so far ahead of her time that nobody really knew what to do with it. Her work was well received, though, which was obviously rare for a woman. It's likely that her father's fame and her own charm had something to do with it.

While there is some debate over how much Ada really contributed to computer science and how much she worked on her notes with Babbage, I have to wonder how much of that debate is inspired by Ada's gender. One historian claims
To me, [correspondence between Ada and Babbage] seems to make obvious once again that Ada was as mad as a hatter, and contributed little more to the 'Notes' than trouble.
In which case... why was Babbage working with her? And there is no questioning that she created the "Note G" algorithm pictured above. It is easy enough to tell between Babbage's highly technical, minutiae-driven work, and Ada's broader vision in their respective writing.

Sadly, Ada died of cancer at only 36 years old - oddly enough, the exact same age as her father. History has remembered Lord Byron's name for his poetry and cult of personality. Let's see if we can't remember Ada Lovelace, too.

No comments:

Post a Comment