ada lovelace

ada lovelace

image linked to page it was found – Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

via Hank Green:

Ada Lovelace: Great Minds


adding page upon reading Steven Johnson‘s how we got to now:


Her letters from the period display a strange mix of Romantic ambition—the sense of a soul larger than the ordinary reality it has found itself trapped in—combined with an intense belief in the power of mathematical reason. Ada wrote about differential calculus with the same passion and exuberance (and self-confidence) that her father wrote about forbidden love:

Owing to some peculiarity in my nervous system, I have perceptions of some things, which no one else has . . . an intuitive perception of hidden things;—that is of things hidden away from eyes, ears, and the ordinary senses. This alone would advantage me little, in the discovery line, but there is, secondly, my immense reasoning faculties, and my concentrative faculty.

A conventional life seemed increasingly unthinkable. But Ada Lovelace found a way around the impasse she had confronted in her mid-twenties. In collaboration with another brilliant Victorian who was equally ahead of his time, Ada charted a path that allowed her to push the barriers of Victorian society without succumbing to the creative chaos that had enveloped her father. She became a software programmer.

reminds me of dec 7 convo with Thomas and his friend. like talking to unschoolers about change. hard to see when you aren’t so indoctrinated..

“Many persons,” she wrote, “imagine that because the business of the 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.” Ada recognized that Babbage’s machine was not a mere number cruncher. Its potential uses went far beyond rote calculation. It might even someday be capable of the higher arts:

BUT IF SIMULTANEOUS INVENTION is the rule, what about the exceptions? What about Babbage and Lovelace, who were effectively a century ahead of just about every other human being on the planet? Most innovation happens in the present tense of the adjacent possible, working with the tools and concepts that are available in that time. But every now and then, some individual or group makes a leap that seems almost like time traveling. How do they do it? What allows them to see past the boundaries of the adjacent possible when their contemporaries fail to do so? That may be the greatest mystery of all.

If there is a common thread to the time travelers, beyond the nonexplanation of genius, it is this: they worked at the margins of their official fields, or at the intersection point between very different disciplines.

Ada Lovelace could see the aesthetic possibilities of Babbage’s Analytical Engine because her life had been lived at a unique collision point between advanced math and Romantic poetry. The “peculiarities” of her “nervous system”—that Romantic instinct to see beyond the surface appearances of things—allowed her to imagine a machine capable of manipulating symbols or composing music, in a way that even Babbage himself had failed to do.

.. the time travelers remind us that working within an established field is both empowering and restricting at the same time.

Progress depends on incremental improvements.) But those disciplinary boundaries can also serve as blinders, keeping you from the bigger idea that becomes visible only when you cross those borders.

But if you want to be like Ada, if you want to have an “intuitive perception of hidden things”—well, in that case, you need to get a little lost.

vulnerability in context, embracing uncertainty.. ness


via :

A different way of looking at the way the computer age evolved is sort of Ada Lovelace’s way which is that computers and humans will evolve symbiotically. They’ll be partners. We will get more intimately connected to our machines and the machines will amplify our intelligence and our creativity will amplify what the machines could do. And we don’t need to try to create robots that’ll work without us. It’s kind of cooler to create this partnership of humans and technology or as she put it the humanities and engineering.

– Walter Isaacson


wikipedia small





Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (10 December 1815 – 27 November 1852), born Augusta Ada Byron and now commonly known as Ada Lovelace, was an English mathematician and writer chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage’s early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. Her notes on the engine include what is recognised as the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine. Because of this, she is often described as the world’s first computer programmer.

Lovelace was born 10 December 1815 as the only child of the poet Lord Byron and his wife Anne Isabella Byron. All Byron’s other children were born out of wedlock to other women. Byron separated from his wife a month after Ada was born and left England forever four months later, eventually dying of disease in the Greek War of Independence when Ada was eight years old. Ada’s mother remained bitter towards Lord Byron and promoted Ada’s interest in mathematics and logic in an effort to prevent her from developing what she saw as the insanity seen in her father, but Ada remained interested in him despite this (and was, upon her eventual death, buried next to him at her request).


via Audrey:

What built today for Ada Lovelace Day: (You can add names via Github)


via Stephen Wolfram:

I think I untangled the (fascinating) tale of Ada Lovelace!

What Babbage imagined is that there could be a machine—a Difference Engine—that could be set up to compute any polynomial up to a certain degree using the method of differences, and then automatically step through values and print the results, taking humans and their propensity for errors entirely out of the loop.

distractions included .. insurance.. logs..


by 1832 a working prototype of a small Difference Engine (without a printer) had successfully been completed. And this is what Ada Lovelace saw in June 1833.

Ada’s encounter with the Difference Engine seems to be what ignited her interest in mathematics.


Ada taught some mathematics to the daughters of one of her mother’s friends. She continued by mail, noting that this could be “the commencement of ‘A Sentimental Mathematical Correspondence carried on for years between two ladies of rank’ to be hereafter published no doubt for the edification of mankind, or womankind”. It wasn’t sophisticated math, but what Ada said was clear, complete with admonitions like “You should never select an indirect proof, when a direct one can be given.” (There’s a lot of underlining, here shown as italics, in all Ada’s handwritten correspondence.)

Babbage seems at first to have underestimated Ada, …soon Babbage was opening up to her about many intellectual topics, as well as about the trouble he was having with the government over funding of the Difference Engine.


Ada was more sensitive than some to the bad notations of calculus (“why can’t one multiply by dx?”, etc.).


Ada’s relationship with her mother was a complex one. Outwardly, Ada treated her mother with great respect. But in many ways she seems to have found her controlling and manipulative. ….by February 6, 1841, Ada was feeling good enough about herself and her mathematics to write a very open letter to her mother about her thoughts and aspirations.

She wrote: “I believe myself to possess a most singular combination of qualities exactly fitted to make me pre-eminently a discoverer of the hidden realities of nature.” She talked of her ambition to do great things. She talked of her “insatiable & restless energy which she believed she finally had found a purpose for. And she talked about how after 25 years she had become less “secretive & suspicious” with respect to her mother.


Babbage’s book is quite hard to read, opening for example with, “The notions we acquire of contrivance and design arise from comparing our observations on the works of other beings with the intentions of which we are conscious in our own undertakings.”

In apparent resonance with some of my own work 150 years later, he talks about the relationship between mechanical processes, natural laws and free will. He makes statements like “computations of great complexity can be effected by mechanical means”, but then goes on to claim (with rather weak examples) that a mechanical engine can produce sequences of numbers that show unexpected changes that are like miracles.


what had happened with the Difference Engine. Babbage had hired one of the leading engineers of his day to actually build the engine.  But somehow, after a decade of work—and despite lots of precision machine tool development—the actual engine wasn’t done.  ..his engineer quit, and insisted that he got to keep all the plans for the Difference Engine, even the ones that Babbage himself had drawn.

But right around this time, Babbage decided he’d had a better idea anyway. Instead of making a machine that would just compute differences, he imagined an “Analytical Engine” that supported a whole list of possible kinds of operations, that could in effect be done in an arbitrarily programmed sequence. ..most important, he figured out how to control the steps in a computation using punched cards of the kind that had been invented in 1801 by Jacquard for specifying patterns of weaving on looms


In October 1842, Menabrea published a paper in French based on his notes. When Ada saw the paper, she decided to translate it into English and submit it to a British publication.


Over the months that followed she worked very hard—often exchanging letters almost daily with those days letters were sent by post (which did come 6 times a day in London at the time) or carried by a servant (Ada lived about a mile from Babbage when she was in London), they read a lot like emails about a project might today, apart from being in Victorian English. Ada asks Babbage questions; he responds; she figures things out; he comments on them. She was clearly in charge, but felt she was first and foremost explaining Babbage’s work, so wanted to check things with him—though she got annoyed when Babbage, for example, tried to make his own corrections to her manuscript.

It’s charming to read Ada’s letter as she works on debugging her computation of Bernoulli numbers: “My Dear Babbage. I am in much dismay at having got into so amazing a quagmire & botheration with these Numbers, that I cannot possibly get the thing done today. …. I am now going out on horseback. Tant mieux.”


Babbage wanted one more thing: he wanted to add an anonymous preface (written by him) that explained how the British government had failed to support the project. Ada thought it a bad idea.


She saw herself as being a successful expositor and interpreter of Babbage’s work, setting it in a broader conceptual framework that she hoped could be built on.


Your affairs have been, & are, deeply occupying both myself and Lord Lovelace…. And the result is that I have plans for you…” Then she proceeds to ask, “If I am to lay before you in the course of a year or two, explicit & honorable propositions for executing your enginewould there be any chance of allowing myself … to conduct the business for you; your own undivided energies being devoted to the execution of the work …”


In other words, she basically proposed to take on the role of CEO, with Babbage becoming CTO. …She wrote, “My own uncompromising principle is to endeavour to love truth & God before fame & glory …”, while “Yours is to love truth & God … but to love fame, glory, honours, yet more.”


If he does consent to what I propose, I shall probably be enabled to keep him out of much hot water; & to bring his engine to consummation, ……But on Babbage’s copy of Ada’s letter, he scribbled, “Saw AAL this morning and refused all conditions”.


..on August 18, Babbage wrote to Ada about bringing drawings and papers when he would next come to visit her. The next week, Ada wrote to Babbage that “We are quite delighted at your (somewhat unhoped for) proposal”  …The next day, Ada responded to Babbage, “You are a brave man to give yourself wholly up to Fairy-Guidance!”, and Babbage signed off on his next letter as “Your faithful Slave”.

but then Ada gets sick.. cancer…. Opium no longer controlled her pain; she experimented with cannabis. By August 1852, she wrote, “I begin to understand Death; which is going on quietly & gradually every minute, & will never be a thing of one particular moment”. And on August 19, she asked Babbage’s friend Charles Dickens to visit and read her an account of death from one of his books.


Ada had made Babbage the executor of her will. And—much to her mother’s chagrin—she had herself buried in the Byron family vault next to her father, who, like her, died at age 36 (Ada lived254 days longer).

Ada’s funeral was small; neither her mother nor Babbage attended.


..after Babbage died, his life work on his engines was all but forgotten …when programming began to be understood in the 1940s, Babbage’s work—and Ada’s Notes—were rediscovered.


It was a certain Bertram Bowden—a British nuclear physicist who went into the computer industry and eventually became Minister of Science and Education—who “rediscovered” Ada.


As interest in Babbage and Ada increased, so did curiosity about whether the Difference Engine would actually have worked if it had been built from Babbage’s plans. A project was mounted, and in 1991, after a heroic effort, a complete Difference Engine was built (with the printer added in 2000), with only one correction in the plans being made. Amazingly, the machine worked. Building it cost about the same, inflation adjusted, as Babbage had requested from the British government back in 1823.

What about the Analytical Engine? So far, no real version of it has ever been built—or even fully simulated.


She then explains that the Difference Engine can compute values of any 6th degree polynomial—but the Analytical Engine is different, because it can perform any sequence of operations. Or, as she says: “The Analytical Engine is an embodying of the science of operations, constructed with peculiar reference to abstract number as the subject of those operations. The Difference Engine is the embodying of one particular and very limited set of operations…”

Charmingly, at least for me, considering the years I have spent working on Mathematica, she continues at a later point: “We may consider the engine as the material and mechanical representative of analysis, and that our actual working powers in this department of human study will be enabled more effectually than heretofore to keep pace with our theoretical knowledge of its principles and laws, through the complete control which the engine gives us over the executive manipulation of algebraical and numerical symbols.”

A little later, she explains that punched cards are how the Analytical Engine is controlled, and then makes the classic statement that “the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves”.

Ada then goes through how a sequence of specific kinds of computations would work on the Analytical Engine, … “cycles” and “cycles of cycles, etc”, now known as loops and nested loops, giving a mathematical notation for them:


she discusses the idea of using loops to reduce the number of cards needed, and the value of rearranging operations to optimize their execution on the Analytical Engine, ultimately showing that just 3 cards could do what might seem like it should require 330.


she states: “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. … Its province is to assist us in making available what we are already acquainted with.”

In other words—as I often point out—actually programming something inevitably lets one do more exploration of it.


Ada seems to have understood, though, that the “science of operations” implemented by the engine would not only apply to traditional mathematical operations. For example, she notes that if “the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony” were amenable to abstract operations, then the engine could use them to “compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent”. Not a bad level of understanding for 1843.


What’s become the most famous part of what Ada wrote is the computation of Bernoulli numbers,…“I want to put in something about Bernoulli’s Numbers, … of how an implicit function may be worked out by the engine, without having been worked out by human head & hands first…. ”


Back in the 1600s, people spent their lives making tables of sums of powers of integers—in other words, tabulating values of Sum of k to the n from 1 to m for different m and n. But Jakob Bernoulli pointed out that all such sums can be expressed as polynomials in m, with the coefficients being related to what are now called Bernoulli numbers.


To compute Bernoulli numbers the way Ada wanted takes two nested loops of operations. With the Analytical Engine design that existed at the time, Ada had to basically unroll these loops. But in the end she successfully produced a description of how B8(which she called B7) could be computed


As it’s printed, there’s a bug in Ada’s execution trace on line 4: the fraction is upside down. But if you fix that, it’s easy to get a modern version of what Ada did


Curiously, even in our record-breaking computation of Bernoulli numbers a few years ago, we were basically using the same algorithm as Ada—though now there are slightly faster algorithms ..


The Analytical Engine and its construction were all Babbage’s work. So what did Ada add? Ada saw herself first and foremost as an expositor. Babbage had shown her lots of plans and examples of the Analytical Engine. She wanted to explain what the overall point was—as well as relate it, as she put it, to “large, general, & metaphysical views”.


To me, there’s little doubt about what happened: Ada had an idea of what the Analytical Engine should be capable of, and was asking Babbage questions about how it could be achieved. If my own experiences with hardware designers in modern times are anything to go by, the answers will often have been very detailed. Ada’s achievement was to distill from these details a clear exposition of the abstract operation of the machine—something which Babbage never did. (In his autobiography, he basically just refers to Ada’s Notes.)


I think the key was what he called his Mechanical Notation. He first wrote about it in 1826 under the title “On a Method of Expressing by Signs the Action of Machinery”.


It’s not quite clear what something like this means:

Babbage Analytical Engine diagram

But it looks surprisingly like a modern Modelica representation—say in Wolfram SystemModeler. (One difference in modern times is that subsystems are represented much more hierarchically; another is that everything is now computable, so that actual behavior of the system can be simulated from the representation.)

computable because of hierarchy..?

I’m not sure why Babbage didn’t do more to explain his Mechanical Notation and his diagrams. Perhaps he was just bitter about peoples’ failure to appreciate it in 1826. Or perhaps he saw it as the secret that let him create his designs. And even though systems engineering has progressed a long way since Babbage’s time, there may yet be inspiration to be had from what Babbage did.


so what..

Babbage: energetic man who had many ideas,…thought of making mathematical tables by machine, .. inventing the Analytical Engine as a way to achieve his objective. He was good—even inspired—at the engineering details. He was bad at keeping a project on track.

Lovelace:intelligent woman who became friends with Babbage .. wrote an exposition of the Analytical Engine, and in doing so she developed a more abstract understanding of it than Babbage had—and got a glimpse of the incredibly powerful idea of universal computation.

.. it’s this idea of universal computation that for example makes software possible—and that launched the whole computer revolution in the 20th century.


Babbage’s Analytical Engine is the first explicit example we know of a machine that would have been capable of universal computation.

Babbage didn’t think of it in these terms, though. He just wanted a machine that was as effective as possible at producing mathematical tables. But in the effort to design this, he ended up with a universal computer.

When Ada wrote about Babbage’s machine, she wanted to explain what it did in the clearest way—and to do this she looked at the machine more abstractly, with the result that she ended up exploring and articulating something quite recognizable as the modern notion of universal computation.

..the idea of universal computation arose again, most clearly in the work of Alan Turing in 1936. Then when electronic computers were built in the 1940s, it was realized they too exhibited universal computation, and the connection was made with Turing’s work.


… wasn’t until the 1980s that universal computation became widely accepted as a robust notion. And by that time, something new was emerging—notably through work I was doing: that universal computation was not only something that’s possible, but that it’s actually common.

And what we now know (embodied for example in my Principle of Computational Equivalence) is that beyond a low threshold a very wide range of systems—even of very simple construction—are actually capable of universal computation.

A Difference Engine doesn’t get there. But as soon as one adds just a little more, one will have universal computation. So in retrospect, it’s not surprising that the Analytical Engine was capable of universal computation.

..I think one can fairly say that Ada Lovelace was the first person ever to glimpse with any clarity what has become a defining phenomenon of our technology and even our civilization: the notion of universal computation.


Today—in the Wolfram Language for example—we never store much in the way of mathematical tables; we just compute what we need when we need it. But in Babbage’s day—with the idea of a massive Analytical Engine—this way of doing things would have been unthinkable.


…she was drawn to abstract ways of thinking, not only in mathematics and science, but also in more metaphysical areas.

And she seems to have concluded that her greatest strength would be in bridging the scientific with the metaphysical—perhaps in what she called “poetical science”. It was likely a correct self perception. For that is in a sense exactly what she did in the Notes she wrote: she took Babbage’s detailed engineering, and made it more abstract and “metaphysical”—and in the process gave us a first glimpse of the idea of universal computation.


But ..

the challenge is to be enough of an Ada to grasp what’s thereor at least to find an Ada who does.

..But at least now I think I have an idea of what the original Ada born 200 years ago today was like: a fitting personality on the road to universal computation and the present and future achievements of computational thinking.

Original Tweet:


2015 – Who was Ada Lovelace?

poetical science

punchcard to computer.. anything notated symbolically – 1830

machines able to do everything.. but think – turing referred to this as ada lovelace’s objection.. built turing to answer the question – how would you know that

today – there’s no machine that seems to be thinking..

ada lovelace’s vision of combining humans and machines.. will always grow faster than machines alone or humans alone


children’s book about Ada.. via Maria: