Happy Ada Lovelace Day everybody! If you’re new to this blog, you will probably want to start with Lovelace: The Origin, so you know who everybody is.
The last couple of Ada Lovelace Days I wrote about a few other women around our heroine, but today I want to come back to Lovelace herself. You usually hear about Lovelace the programmer but it’s Lovelace the visionary that’s been on my mind lately.
Slowly taking shape like some monstrous unairworthy Zeppelin behind the scenes here is the Leviathan culmination of this comic, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, The Book and fully-functioning doorstop. Coming.. a year from now. Yeah sorry.
As part of the book I’ve been undertaking the task of visualising the Analytical Engine. Not the one that lurks ambiguously in the backgrounds of the comics but the real one from Babbage’s plans. Hoo boy let me tell you however complicated you think this thing is, raise that to the power of six right away because oh. my. god. Babbage what kind of brain did you have in there? It’s been very enlightening however and hopefully I can start blogging about it soon!
Here’s some of it:
Trust me it’s waaaaaay bigger than that. Anyhow working on this thing has definitely cemented my awe of both Babbage and Lovelace, Babbage because, well, geez just look at this thing, and Lovelace because a)she could get her head around it without a 3d modelling program, and b) because she realised, which even Babbage didn’t, that this thing was a computer. That is, the equations it could potentially handle were not just numerical ones, but logical equations.
Like Babbage, the deeper I get into Lovelace’s paper the more I am astonished at this insight because it not only not obvious, it’s one of the least obvious things anyone has ever thought of, at least of the category of things that turn out to be right. It’s even less obvious than you think it is because even the very idea of using mathematics symbolically was new and even controversial even in the 1830s.
Very much not by coincidence two of the biggest names on the pro-symbols and anti-symbols sides were tutors of Ada Lovelace. On the anti side we have William Frend, a mathematician so conservative he was against negative numbers. On the subject of symbolic mathematics (which to be fair had shaky theoretical underpinnings at this point) he wrote “Give me certainty not uncertainty, science not art!” You will be delighted to learn that he’s the guy who told Lady Byron that Ada should be taught mathematics “as it is a subject that could not possibly give rise to any objectionable thoughts”.
On the other side, Lovelace’s later and most important teacher Augustus de Morgan– Frend’s son-in-law! so you can imagine the dinner table arguments, the debt-ceiling would be nothing to them (jk- they got along famously, just not mathematically). De Morgan wrote some of the earliest books in which you see someone reaching towards a mathematical expression of logic:
That’s from First Notions of Logic Prepratory to the Study of Geometry which he published the year Lovelace started working on the Analytical Engine. Lovelace published her paper on the Engine five years before Boole’s Laws of Thought, which was (I think?) the first complete mathematisation of logic.
There’s a nice paper free online if you’re a super-dork about this stuff btw, which contains the following seemingly devastating refutation of the anti-symbolists by Augustus de Morgan:
I’m surprised to see so eminent a logician as de Morgan make such an elementary error, as any child could so easily disprove this with -(pooh)n n=infinity+1. But even geniuses can be human, as lord knows I’ve learned from writing this book.
I think the thing that gave Lovelace this idea that you could do mechanical logic came from this widget, one of the many many manyn widgets on the Engine:
This is one of the barrel controls that does.. something I’m not completely sure on (this is a HIGHLY simplified version by the way, the real version has about 4 times as many bits and has 50 rows of pegs or something). Pay particular attention to the peg on the very top- you see how it only activates is lever if there’s a peg and the other little lever is interposed. If. And. IF. AND. These are logic concepts and this is why Lovelace writes:
Whether the inventor of this engine had any such views in his mind while working out the invention, or whether he may subsequently ever have regarded it under this phase, we do not know; but it is one that forcibly occurred to ourselves on becoming acquainted with the means through which analytical combinations are actually attained by the mechanism. [...]It seems to us obvious, however, that where operations are so independent in their mode of acting, it must be easy, by means of a few simple provisions, and additions in arranging the mechanism, to bring out a double set of results, viz.—1st, the numerical magnitudes which are the results of operations performed on numerical data. (These results are the primary object of the engine.) 2ndly, the symbolical results to be attached to those numerical results, which symbolical results are not less the necessary and logical consequences of operations performed upon symbolical data, than are numerical results when the data are numerical.
So Happy Ada Lovelace Day and as you use your computers today in all their myriad forms think of that candlelit room all those years ago when someone thought, “Heeeeeeeey….”
Some housekeeping notes!
I’m speaking at the first ever conference on Ada Lovelace this Friday in at the Stevens Institute, so come along if you happen to live in the environs of New York city!
Also for New Yorkers, I’m speaking (though virtually by Skype) at Thoughtworks NYC at their fab-sounding Ada Lovelace bash!
Everybody else in the world, there are endless great ALD events all over our fine planet!
I am informed that commenting is broken, I THINK only one the post preceding this one. If there’s no comments on this post either comments are still broken, or you are all preserving a frosty silence at my lack of comics production, and who can say which?