Monday, December 10

The Analytical Engine

If you are reading this on your computer please join me in wishing Ada Lovelace a happy birthday.

Ada Lovelace (the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron and his wife Anne Isabella Byron) was an English mathematician and writer chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage's early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine.

Babbage was invited to give a seminar in 1842 at the University of Turin about his analytical engine, a proposed mechanical general-purpose computer. Luigi Menabrea, a young Italian engineer, and future Prime Minister of Italy, wrote up Babbage's lecture in French, and this transcript was subsequently published in the Bibliothèque universelle de Genève in October 1842.

Babbage asked Lovelace to translate Menabrea's paper into English, subsequently requesting that she augment the notes she had added to the translation. These notes (which are more extensive than Menabrea's paper!) were then published in The Ladies' Diary and Taylor's Scientific Memoirs under the initials "AAL."

Her notes on the engine include what is recognised as the first algorithm intended to be processed by a machine. Because of this, she is often considered by many to be the world's first computer programmer.

Lovelace's notes on Babbage's Analytical Engine were republished in 1953. The analytical engine has now been recognized as an early model for a computer and Lovelace's notes as a description of a computer and software.

Interestingly, Lovelace was a character in the steampunk novel The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.

The Difference Engine has attracted the attention of scholars and was nominated for the British Science Fiction Award in 1990, the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1991, and both the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and the Prix Aurora Award in 1992.

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