Thursday, 5 June 2014

Lovelace and Babbage

5th June 1833

This day in history...Ada Lovelace (first computer programmer) meets Charles Babbage

Lovelace and Babbage are well known and well respected names in the computer science field. Babbage is best remembered for originating the concept of a programmable computer, something that most people now use every single day. Whilst Lovelace was an English mathematician, she is chiefly known for her work on Babbage's early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. Today's event marks the start of a successful and professional relationship that led to great discoveries. 

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Lovelace and Babbage
Charles Babbage: A brief history
Babbage achieved many things in his life in many various fields. He was a British mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer. Babbage was born in London on 26th December 1791, as a son of a banker. He was often unwell as a child and was mainly home-schooled. He became interested in mathematics and by the time he attended Cambridge University in 1810, he was well educated in many subjects. After his graduation, Babbage was hired by the Royal Institution to lecture on calculus. He was soon elected as a member of the Royal Society and set up the Astronomical Society in 1820. From 1828-1839, Babbage was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. 

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Charles Babbage
In the 1820s Babbage began work on his 'Difference Engine', the machine which could perform mathematical calculations. A model was initially created and then demonstrated to audiences. Babbage soon developed Difference Engine 2 - a bigger, better machine. He also worked on his other invention, the Analytical Engine - this is where is fame is most recognised. The machine was intended to perform any arithmetical calculation using punched cards that would deliver instructions, as well as a memory unit and other fundamental components seen in today's computers. It was this invention that Ada Lovelace assisted with. However the Analytical Engine and the Difference Engine 2 were never completed in Babbage's lifetime. 

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The Analytical Machine
Although Babbage's fame is mainly known for his inventions in the 1820s, he continued working in many different sectors. Ranging from cryptography, metrology, publications in science to public nuisances. His work in the latter was an unpopular campaign, as he literally counted all the broken windows in factories and buildings and tied them to drunken men and women.

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Babbage's Public Nuisance publication: Table of the Relative
Frequency of the Causes of Breakage of Plate Glass Windows
 During his lifetime, Babbage married Georgiana Whitmore and had eight children. However only four of his children survived: Benjamin Herschel, Gerogiana Whitmore, Dugald Bromhead and Henry Prevost. Babbage's wife died in 1827, the same year his second son Charles, newborn son Alexander, and his father. During this point of his life, Babbage was grief stricken and travelled across Europe to get away, and to meet more inventors who eventually got on board with his ideas. 

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The Babbage children: Benjamin, Georgiana, Dugald, Henry
Babbage died, aged 79, in 1871 and was buried in London's Kensal Green Cemetery. He had declined a Knighthood and a Baronetcy. He is considered now as the 'father of the computer', despite never completing his invention. Parts of the incomplete mechanisms are on display in the London Science Museum, along with half of his brain. In 1991, a perfectly functioning Difference Engine was constructed from Babbage's original plans. 

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The machine at the London Science Museum
Ada Lovelace: A brief history
Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace was born on 10th December 1815, and was the child of poet George Gordon Byron - better known as the flamboyant and notorious Lord Byron, who was famous for his huge debts, numerous love affairs with both sexes, and scandals and exile. Back to Ada. Her mother promoted Ada's interest in mathematics and logic in an effort to prevent her from developing what she saw as the insanity of her father. Ada was often ill during her childhood and when she was 8 years old, she experienced headaches that obscured her vision. In 1829 she was paralysed after having the measles and was bed bound for nearly a year. By 1831 she was able to walk with crutches. 

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Ada Lovelace portrait 1840
Image retrieved from Google. Will remove at owner's request. Ada Lovelace 

Despite her illnesses and disability, Ada developed her mathematical and technological skills. Lovelace developed strong relationships with her tutors and acquaintances. She was also once caught trying to elope with one of her tutors. Her close friends included Charles Dickens and Michael Faraday. 

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Michael Faraday
Throughout her life, Lovelace was strongly interested in scientific developments. She met Babbage in June 1833 though a mutual friend, Mary Somerville. Later that month, Babbage invited Lovelace to see the prototype for his Difference Engine, in which she had become fascinated in. Babbage was impressed by Lovelace's intellect and analytic skills. He called her The Enchantress of Numbers. During 1842-43, Ada translated Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea's memoir on Babbage's Analytical Engine. Based on her notes from this and her own research of the machine, Lovelace is now widely credited with being the first computer programmer. Her work was well received and Michael Faraday himself expressed himself as a fan. Babbage and Lovelace had a minor falling out over paper work and publishing at the time. However the respect that both had for each other repaired the professional friendship.

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Ada 1852
 Lovelace continued to work on mathematical projects and engineering before and after her fame with Babbage. In July 1835 she married William King and they had three children; Byron, Anna Isabella (Annabella), and Ralph Gorfon. At the young age of 36, Ada died in 1852. She had suffered uterine cancer, probably caused by bloodletting by her physicians. The illness lasted several months, in which her mother took control of who saw her, ultimately excluding Ada from her friends and confidants. Her mother influenced her to undergo a religious transformation. Ada lost contact with her husband after she confessed something to him which caused him to abandon her bedside. What she told him remains unknown. She was buried next to her father in Nottingham. 

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Legacy: Babbage and Lovelace
Babbage's name has been dedicated to several locations, institutions and things:

  • The Moon Crater Babbage
  • The Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota
  • British Rail named a locomotive after him in the 1990s
  • The Babbage Building at the University of Plymouth
  • The Babbage programming language fro GEC 4000 series minicomputers
  • The former chain retail computer and video-games store 'Babbage's' (now GameStop) 
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Green Plaque in London
The computer language, Ada, was created on behalf of the US Department of Defense and was named after Ada Lovelace. Since 1988, the British Computer Society has awarded a Medal in her name and in 2008 initiated an annual competition for women students of computer science. "Ada Lovelace Day" is an annual event held in October which aims to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. The Ada Initiative is a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing women's involvement in the free culture and open source movements. 

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Blue commemoration plaque
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Ada Programming language

I also came across a few cartoons and comic strips highlighting the successful relationship between Lovelace and Babbage: 

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Comic strip/cartoon

1 comment:

  1. This is incorrect. Micheal Faraday was not friends with Ada. Ada was a fan of Faraday and wanted him to tutor her but he declined.