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Part 5: Lady Lovelance and the Analytical Engine

Updated: Jul 28

As promised in last week’s blog post, we are going to spend this week talking about the contributions of Ada Lovelance to the history of search engines. At the highest of high levels, she is the world’s first computer programmer. Additionally, like her counterpart Charles Babbage, she possessed many traits of the great polymaths who preceded her.

From an early age, it was very apparent to her mother, Lady Byron, that Ada was not destined to follow the path of the ordinary British Noblewoman. At the age of twelve, Ada, like a lot of twelve-year-olds, decided she wanted to fly. However, unlike most twelve-year-olds, she decided to first observe the movement patterns of birds, document her findings, investigate materials that could potentially be used for wings such as silk and paper, and, finally, compile all of this information into a journal named “Flyology”. Leonardo DaVinci would’ve been proud of her for following this process, even thought she never jumped out her window to test her findings.

In part, this imagination and aptitude came from her father – the great British poet Lord Byron. For those of you unfamiliar, he wrote “Don Juan”, also known as the bible for any man who desired to spend his life vagabonding and seducing women. When she was only a few weeks old, Ada and her mother were ordered away from Lord Byron. As Ada got older, Lady Byron began to notice Ada's aptitude and imagination, two defining traits of her father. Her mother became increasingly anxious, as women were not supposed to pursue an intellectual, STEM path in this era.

At the age of seventeen, Lovelance began to earn a sterling reputation for herself in the circles of London society not for her appearance, but for her brilliant mind. It was at one of these high society events where she would meet Charles Babbage, who was in his forties at that time. Her and Babbage immediately began discussing the potential of the Difference Engine through a series of letters. Babbage greatly admired Ada’s mathematical aptitude and deemed her the “Enchantress of Number”.

When it came time for him to debut the Analytical Engine, he called upon Ada to translate an article of it written by Luigi Menabrea, a well-respected Italian mathematician and professor. In the process of translating Menabrea’s work, she added her own notes and observations, which tripled the length of the original article. In her translation, she laid the groundwork for what would evolve into the foundations of computer code.

She described topics such as how the machine itself worked in a similar fashion to a silk weaving loom and how punch cards could be configured to perform a gamut of calculations – even providing an example punch card of calculating a series of Bernoulli numbers. This particular card is widely considered to be the first piece of computer code.

The last major piece of her translation was the abstraction of Babbage’s machine. Babbage only intended his machine to calculate numerical values quickly. However, Lovelance took this intent a step further – she equated the series of operations necessary to perform complex mathematical calculations to being able to solve for any input and output. To put into modern computing terms, she put real meaning to binary input code: aka the open or closed punch holes of the card. Without this jump in understanding, computers, let alone search engines, would have never been possible. Lady Lovelance, we thank you…

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