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Smart Reads: James Essinger’s ‘Ada’s Algorithm’

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Ada Lovelace is said to be the world’s first computer programmer; even though she never laid a hand on a mouse or keyboard, she helped shape our technological present. We recently got a chance to talk with author James Essinger, whose new book Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age, traces the origin of both Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine and Lovelace’s key insights into the machine:

(Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. To hear even more on Lovelace and the history of technology, the World Science Festival is hosting an event with The Innovators author Walter Isaacson—tickets are sold out, but you can still join the waitlist to be first in line if more become available.)

World Science Festival: Why do you think Ada Lovelace understood the possibilities of the Analytical Engine better than Babbage?

James Essinger: She understood the machine could do far more than calculations. In her extensive Notes she wrote that the Analytical Engine could do all sorts of things. We mustn’t go too far, though—Babbage invented the machine; she was simply writing notes on it. But her personal notes were very exciting because she had insights into it that Babbage did not have. She deserves her reputation as a thought pioneer in computers.

WSF: Computer scientist Howard Aiken said that if Charles Babbage had been born later, he would’ve faced stiff competition. How did the restraints of the time impede Babbage and Lovelace’s work? 

JE: This may sound facetious, but they just didn’t have an electronics industry. It was too primeval of a system. People also just didn’t think information technology was possible—that was a major cultural problem. They were also pretty stupid in their thoughts about women too. The time is utterly and completely pre-high technology, all just steel and furnaces, so the power the Analytical Engine would have over information was just inconceivable.

People sometimes think Babbage’s plans weren’t accurate enough, but when they built the actual Analytical Engine in 1991, they were able to use his original writings and sketches. Babbage didn’t have precision engineering at the time, so every cog and wheel had to be handcrafted.

WSF: Conversely, how do think such restraints of the time might’ve aided them?

JE: One thing, if nothing else, was that they had a virgin field to work in. There’s this myth of inventors working alone, like Hewlett-Packard building their first computer in a garage. But now, millions of people working together around the world build technologies like the smartphone. It’s almost unearthly. The ingenuity and scale of engineering they were talking about was remarkable in its foresight and prescience.

WSF: You reference C.P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures,” which suggests society is divided into the sciences and the humanities, but Walter Isaacson said – on your book itself – that Lovelace stood “at the intersection of arts and technology.” Why do you think Ada Lovelace was able to balance the two concepts, so often pitted against each other?

JE: Because today we actually do regard information technology as an intersection of arts and technology. When was the last time you used your smartphone for calculations? We don’t really use computers for that. We use it for cultural technology. Even engineers who work on airplanes and computers systems come home to their families and do normal human stuff like watch movies. I mean, I use tech to amuse myself and get in touch with my friends.

WSF: You explain how Ada Lovelace described several concepts in computer science, like data and processing, long before they were commonplace. How did this contribute to the science of computing?

JE: There is no direct cultural descendent from Babbage’s computer. I wrote about the Jacquard loom in another book and I believe there is a direct link there. But Babbage’s machine was kind of a dead end. The computer invented in the 1940s using IBM funding is the actual ancestor of our machines. If anything, Ada shows women have succeeded where men have been considered the experts.

WSF: Ada Lovelace was previously dismissed or discredited based on her gender. You work hard to point out the errors in these claims, but why do you think she was discredited in the first place?

JE: She lived in pig-ignorant society with middle-aged men who didn’t have a high opinion of women. Men have always thought they were the best if only because we have more physical strength. Women got a raw deal. In all fairness, part of the dynamics of society was that middle class women didn’t have much to do other than run the family and be decoration at home. Ada was born in a terrible time.

WSF: Do you believe children should learn about Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage alongside other computer history figures such as Alan Turing?

JE: I think these people deserve to be on the syllabus at schools around the world, particularly in America and Britain. Babbage is extremely interesting. He was a friend of Charles Dickens. His father left him 10 million pounds and he used it all on his computers, the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine—neither of which were built in his lifetime.

WSF: What might have happened if Babbage had built both engines?

JE: I think it would’ve had a big impact on society. Maybe the inventions would’ve prevented the suffering and poverty in the early twentieth century, prevented things like the First World War. They could’ve used it to build so much more technology based on them which would’ve advanced even further after electricity.

WSF: Sounds like steampunk.

JE: Yes, it does actually.

Check out this excerpt from ‘Ada’s Algorithm’ highlighting the difference between Ada’s and Babbage’s views of the Analytical Engine:

Ada’s Notes provide, overall, what is in my view absolutely conclusive evidence that she and Babbage saw the Analytical Engine very differently. Babbage had (curiously) little interest in the practical impact of his second engine. His restless energy circled mathematics and the practical questions that had escaped the great mathematicians Leibniz and Pascal. Ada, on the other hand, was profoundly interested in the practical applications of the Analytical Engine, just as she was interested in the practical applications of the Jacquard Loom. Ada’s excitement that she might be able to help Babbage make the practical applications of the Analytical Engine come about was exactly what drove her enthusiasm to support Babbage in the first place.

Yet this did not mean that she was easily seduced by grand speculative notions of what science could achieve for people. The Notes and the translation relate almost entirely to the functioning of the machine, not its potential. It was precisely the fact that, in her own assessment, the machine could indeed do exactly what Babbage said it could that made her so interested in it and willing to devote herself to Babbage.

Ada was clear-sighted about the fact that good science is not about making claims but about formulating assertions that can be disproven. Building the machine would test the truth of what she had written.

It took Ada to see what the Analytical Engine truly represented in the forward evolution of human technology. She realized the Jacquard loom provided the first example in the history of human technology of the process of digitization of daily life and not just mathematics, a process that the Analytical Engine was furthering.

This excerpt is drawn from Ada’s Algorithm by James Essinger, published by Melville House on October 14, 2014.

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