Proof is in the Pudding
He is known as one of the leaders of the Romantic period. Considered one of England’s greatest poets whose personal life was both celebrated and censured, Lord Byron was also father to the world’s first female computer scientist in the mid nineteenth century.
Charles Babbage was born in England in 1791. As a child he contracted a dangerous fever and spent several years with a private tutor and solitude. In later life he once stated that this time might be responsible for his later “mind reasonings”. Babbage was a mechanical engineer, inventing the “pilot” or as it is commonly known, the cow-catcher. This was a metal structure attached to the front of a train locomotive to clear the tracks.
Babbage also founded the British Astronomical Society in 1820 and the Analytical Society four years later. He would later help write the first calculus textbook. It is his biggest “failure”, though, that he might be best remembered for and which brings us to our female inventor for today.
In 1822, Babbage presented a paper the astronomical Society entitled “Note on the application of machinery to the computation of astronomical and mathematical tables.” Babbage’s Analytical Machine was to be used for calculating polynomials by using a numerical process he termed “the differences method”. The British government was suitably impressed and eventually gave Babbage almost twenty thousand pounds towards the development of such a device before abandoning it in 1842.
Babbage’s device consisted of an analytical machine which used punch cards to specify the input and necessary calculations to determine the desired outcome. It consisted of two parts which Babbage called the mill and the store, possibly taking these terms from the Jacquard loom which had been the original home of said punch cards.
Babbage’s Analytical Machine was no small undertaking. Its development comprised 500 large design drawings, 1000 sheets of mechanical notation, and 7000 sheets of scribbles. The completed mill would measure 15 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter and the 100 digit store would stretch to 25 feet long. While the government officially withdrew support, Babbage continued to work on his design. An Italian mathematician wrote a paper on Babbage’s design which was translated into English by the Countess of Lovelace, Augusta Ada King, daughter of Lord Byron.
Ada Lovelace was the only legitimate heir of Lord Byron although her parents were married for a brief time. He would later die during the Greek War for Independence when Ada was only eight years old. Because her parents’ marriage had ended bitterly and with acrimony that remained with her mother for the rest of her life, Ada’s interest in mathematics was greatly encouraged as a means of avoiding the “madness” her mother feared she might have inherited from her father.
Ada Lovelace considered herself a “poetical scientist” and an “analyst and metaphysician”. She was only eighteen when she met Charles Babbage and twenty-eight years old when she translated the Italian piece about his work. She supplanted her translation with a set of her own summations in a work she entitled “Notes”. Her summarizations are what many in the field consider to be the very first computer program. Lovelace envisioned an algorithm which would be commutated by a machine, giving her the nickname by which many know her – “Algorithm Enchantress”.
Of Babbage’s machine, Ada Lovelace wrote: “Many persons who are not conversant with mathematical studies imagine that because the business of [Babbage’s Analytical Engine] is to give its results in numerical notation, the nature of its processes must consequently be arithmetical and numerical, rather than algebraical and analytical. This is an error. The engine can arrange and combine its numerical quantities exactly as if they were letters or any other general symbols; and in fact it might bring out its results in algebraical notation, were provisions made accordingly,” Lovelace explained.
Ada Lovelace foresaw computers as being more than just number-crunching machines. True to her description of being a “poetical scientist”, she questioned how technology could be used as a collaborative tool with people and nations, even the world. Her life was cut short at the age of thirty-six and she died of uterine cancer in 1852, a dreamer who might be among the earliest responsible for the computer you use today for more than just number equations.
Some have disputed Ada Lovelace’s ability with mathematics but Clearly Charles Babbage gave her due credit in this statement: “Forget this world and all its troubles and if possible its multitudinous Charlatans—everything in short but the Enchantress of Number.” Babbage also wrote a treatise entitled “On the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation”. In it he posited the idea that God “had the omnipotence and foresight to create as a divine legislator, making laws (or programs) which then produced species at the appropriate times, rather than continually interfering with ad hoc miracles each time a new species was required.”
Ada Lovelace’s influence on Charles Babbage was strong and he would eventually see things with her vision. Babbage was also a cryptographer and deciphered the Vigenère’s autokey cipher. His discovery was used in English military campaigns and kept a secret which allowed someone else to receive credit even though his findings came after those of Babbage.
Clearly for Ada Lovelace the need for being able to convey reality and desired outcomes was important. She also, however, had the wisdom to go beyond with present and look for future applications, to think outside of the box so to speak. At the end of the nineteenth century, using both Babbage and Lovelace’s notes, the Analytical Machine was developed and it did work.
An algorithm is simply a set of rules or process for which something is accomplished. I have a friend who is a mathematics instructor and her faith in her students reminds me of Lovelace’s faith in Babbage and in the future. While her students probably don’t realize it, the algorithms my friend is helping them decipher could very well be the tools for living the rest of their lives.
Most of us have a belief system that functions as an algorithm for our own living. So often we get bogged down in the minutiae of life and fail to see what is happening if it is not what we expected. We fail to have the patience to look beyond the moment and envision what could be. We need to have faith in our beliefs and let them work for us and show us the possibilities instead of confining them to that which we have already known. We need to be poetical visionaries and follow Ada Lovelace’s example in looking beyond. Pudding was a mistake that tasted delicious. Sometimes the real value is in the process because the finished result might just be beyond anything we could ever imagine.