Ada Lovelace Day 2013!


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.

It was a hundred years before anyone applied logic practically, that was Claude Shannon by the way. (also by the way you should read James Gleick’s The Information)

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?


27 Responses to “Ada Lovelace Day 2013!”

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  1. James says:

    An attempt to comment so you know if your comments work

  2. Angela says:

    Happy Ada Lovelace day Sydney, glad we got to actually see you last year. Testing out your comment box.

  3. Sara says:

    Ada looks like she’s seeing bats or ghosts up in the workings of the engine. Oh My!

  4. djthomp says:

    “On the anti side we have William Frend, a mathematician so conservative he was against negative numbers.”

    Hahahhaha! That just made my morning.

  5. Rico says:

    Happy Ada day, Sydney. That comment about Frend and negative numbers caught be completely off guard. My monitor is now swimming in asperated coffee juice.

  6. Brian says:

    Yay for Ada Lovelace Day, for it always means a fascinating post here! And don’t apologize for the next-year date for the book — I’m just excited that there’s an actual ETA.

  7. Scott says:

    Hey Sydney, maybe you could collaborate someday with one or more of the AE geeks to annotate Ada’s paper in an amusing and non-head-splody way. In your vast amounts of free time, of course. I’d sure pay good coin of the realm for that.
    (Make sure TTAOLAB book gets done first, though.)

  8. Ann says:

    Yeay Ada Lovelace Day! I’m about to start writing my own conference paper on your Lovelace/Babbage comics and the Difference Engine–can’t wait to get into it! Will send when it’s done!

  9. Del Cotter says:

    Thus De Morgan was the inventor of the concept of “eleventy”, without which the social network would scarcely be able to function today.

  10. Barnesm says:

    yes indeed comments are working, which allows me to say regarding the great work you have embarked upon HUZZAH.

  11. Max Battcher says:

    That last quote from Ada Lovelace seems not only like such a huge insight into computers but that she was also within spitting distance of the Church-Turing Hypothesis. Now I kind of want to invent some American lady analog to Church with which she might have corresponded in some alternate universe and the two of them would have invented so many cool programs. Something like Grace Hopper’s grandmother kind of lady, perhaps?

  12. Mac says:

    Happy late Ada Lovelace Day. Great essay. The potential of the computer is something we live with every day, and it is easy to forget what an act of brilliance it is to recognize that potential without the precedent of experience.

    This encapsulates what I love about your site. Come for the comics and stay for the scholarship. Thank you for sharing your own brilliance with us.

  13. Edward says:

    Have you seen the Meccano Difference Engines?

    Keep up the good work!

  14. Diane Savona says:

    I found your blog while researching mathematical images – which I use in my textile art – and I love the adventurea of Ada and Babbage! If you get a chance, go to to see my mathematically related art. Good luck with the book!

  15. Joe Green says:

    Reading that comment by Ada, I have only one response: Wow. Just wow.

    • Joe Green says:

      Oh and is there a link to the paper from which you’re quoting there? Probably buried somewhere in your older posts, perhaps. But worth re-posting for (late ) ALD.

  16. John Spencer says:

    A year from now ! You have just ruined Christmas. Still, Christmas a year from now is something to look forward to. Happy Ada Lovelace Day 2013 !

  17. chicgeek says:

    I’m looking for a drawing you did of Ada and another woman scientist amid all the male scientists of the society, and Ada’s wonderful snarky reply. Help?

  18. =Tamar says:

    A year from now? Sigh. Will you be able to start drawing more comics once the final manuscript is in the hands of the editors?

  19. Paul Sinnett says:

    I made this program in Scratch for Ada Lovelace day this year:

    It follows her process as described in her notes. The notes don’t actually describe the program so much as the results of the program at each step. However, it’s possible to work backwards to guess the program she had in mind.

  20. Something odd is going on with Babbage’s plaid trousers up there.

    Either they’re drawn on graph paper, or Our Hostess is having some fun.

  21. Happy Lovelace Day!
    I’ve never commented here before, but I just want to say that this is by far and away the BEST webcomic I have ever come across, and I can’t wait for the collected volume!

  22. gilbert wham says:

    Please come back?

  23. John Spencer says:

    A further year of work put into the mighty tome (pause for awed contemplation of how great the comic and the footnotes will be). Bravo!
    And another Bravo! for having found, researched and presented this astonishing history.

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