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The Lovelace letter.

The Lovelace Letter

Dear Ada--

When I wished you season's greetings in this space last month, I assumed the world knew of your name and fame. Not so. Some readers and staff asked just who you were or are.

Here are the facts:

Lady Ada Augusta Lovelace, the only legitimate offspring of the poet Lord Byron, was the confidante of Charles Babbage, the eccentric Cambridge professor who spent his life trying to make a computer called the Analytical Machine out of cog wheels, levers, and fonts of type. Lady Lovelace is credited as being the world's first programmer.

She spent her childhood, one biographer notes, solving quadratic equations. (Her mother had exiled Byron to Greece within a month of Ada's birth in December 1815. He died there eight years later. But that's another story.)

In 1846, Lady Lovelace outlined the two basic ideas behind computer programming: repetition of routines and conditional transfer of control.

Said Lady Lovelace to Charles Babbage, "The machine is capable of feeling about to see which of a certain set of eventualities has occurred and of shaping its future course of action accordingly." Babbage's reply has, alas, been lost to history, but Lady Lovelace's ideas have been rediscovered by more than one successful programmer.

Lady Lovelace translated a French article on Babbage's Analytical Engine into English in 1846. In her appended notes, she explained how easy and important it was to use the same routine over and over again.

A 1986 biography of Lady Lovelace by Joan Baum was titled, appropriately enough, The Calculating Passion of Ada Byron (Archon Books/Shoe String Press). Baum points out that Ada observed that the Analytical Machine "can do whatever we know how to order it to perform."

Lady Lovelace may also have foreseen the artificial intelligence controversy. The machine, she wrote, "can follow analysis, but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relationships or truths. Its province is to assist us in making available what we are already acquainted with.

"The Analytical Engine has no pretentions to originate anything."

The name "Ada," as most hackers know, was coopted by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1979 for its standardized computer language.

We can credit the discovery and application of Ada's notes to Lord Bowden of the University of Manchester in 1953. He had joined Ferranti Computers in 1950 to see if it would be possible to manufacture such machines and sell them at a profit. He succeeded.

In 1969, Bowden observed that "before long, we shall all be talking to computers, and their languages will form part of every undergraduate course. . . .

"Babbage once remarked that most people reacted to his machine in the same way as a naked savage reacted to the sound of a musket shot. What would he say today?"

Perhaps, Happy New Year, Ada?

Chuck Beardsley Managing Director Publications

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Title Annotation:Ada Augusta Lovelace's ideas on computer programming
Author:Beardsley, Chuck
Publication:Mechanical Engineering-CIME
Article Type:column
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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