Sunday, 15 March 2015

How bohemian life led to the first computer program

Lord Byron was not only a great poet and the responsible for Mary Shelley's “Frankenstein” as well as John Polidori's “The Vampyre”, whose main character is said to be Lord Byron himself and would set the ground for modern vampire stories like “Dracula”. He was also one of the first fan phenomenons in history, causing long queues every time he had new poems published, and even faints and hysteria whenever he made public appearances. And he loved it. Likewise, he was one of the first celebrities to receive plenty of fan mail, on which he even received invitations to... well, "untoward" things that probably did not sound very well when written on paper in the 19th century.

The truth is, he never was in need of women, intense experiences or fun. But, surprisingly, or probably not, considering how things go in life, he liked Anne Isabella who was very religious and strict, and who loved mathematics. As expected, the very serious lady and the vicious guy who loved bohemian life stayed together for a short time only and they got separated after a one year marriage and right after having Augusta Ada (1815-1852) who would be Lord Byron's only official child. It was Lord Byron who started calling his daughter by her middle name rather than Augusta, which is the reason why she'd be known as Ada all her life. Although they never saw each other  again since Lord Byron and his wife got separated; in fact Ada never even saw his father's portrait until her twenties. Ironically, they ended up buried next to each other.

Along with her spiteful going around informing everyone and anyone of her ex husband's immoral behaviour (as though she was surprised!), and in order to avoid the possibility that Ada inherited her father's unhealthy and relaxed tastes and way of life, Ada Byron's mum imposed on her a strict scientific and technologic education which was very welcome by her daughter. Ada was fascinated by mathematics and how machines functioned, to the extent that she even used to design boats and flying machines as a kid. And then at 19 she got married to William King who was later made Earl of Lovelace, while she became Countess of Lovelace. That's why we know her as Ada Lovelace despite her first name not being Ada nor her surname Lovelace.

And to think we nowadays moan about our favourite jeans not being dry and having to wear the less favorite ones. From computer programming to partying with the guys, she did all that in this outfit. Amazing innit. 

In 1833, one of Ada Lovelace’s science teachers introduced her to Charles Babbage, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge (just in order that you guys have an idea of what that means, I'll tell you that Newton, Paul Dirac and Stephen Hawking have had that position, not that anyone can get it). This guy was quite famous for his work in theoretical plans for massive calculating machines. He had designed (though never built in full) two types of engine: the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine. The Difference Engine was a machine that worked using addition, whereas the Analytical Engine could use addition, substraction, multiplication and division -a machine that somewhat was able to do “everything”, similarly to the computers we have nowadays. So he and Ada got so impressed with each other that they soon started working together, and they became close and lifelong friends.

The punched cards

Ada Lovelace designed a method through which Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine could calculate a sequence of  numbers, by means of a punched card input device. She gave the example of a sequence of Bernoulli's numbers, but only as a way to show that the same machine could calculate any sequence of numbers or function, were it to be given instructions. This was very important as with it she was setting the basis for designing machines that could manipulate symbols and instructions rather than just numbers. The method would have worked had the Analytical Engine been actually built (only the Difference Engine was, in London in 2002). Based on this, Ada Lovelace is nowadays considered the first computer programmer and her method is recognised as the world's first computer program.

Ada must have been a great woman to know, considering she lived in the Victorian era. First, because of her unusual education and interest in science for a woman by then, second because we shouldn't forget she did all that in a corset, and also because she would not really care about what others thought of her relaxed relationship with men who were not her husband, which not only included her work with Charles Babbage but also led to rumours of affairs involving Charles Dickens and Michael Faraday. Besides, she really loved gambling, to the point that she formed a group with male friends in a supposed attempt to create a mathematical model for successful bets. This ended up being a disaster, with her in debt of plenty of money but what the hell, she had way more fun than most women were allowed by then.

She died of cancer at 36 and she now lies next to her father.

More about Ada Lovelace

What are Bernoulli's numbers -though I'd rather stick to the idea that they are just a sequence of numbers, not that I really want to have my brain boiling for the next two days and I'd prefer to have a laugh or two at the love letters addressed to Lord Byron.

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