“The Enchantress of Number”
Ada first made the acquaintance of Charles Babbage in 1833. Babbage had designed a calculating machine, which he called a Difference Engine. Two feet high and composed of 2000 brass wheels and cogs, the device produced remarkably accurate calculations with just the turn of a wheel. The machine fascinated Ada, and she maintained contact with Babbage. Meanwhile, the man who would become known as “The Father of the Computer” continued to develop his concept into the more complex “Analytical Engine,” which, through a series of punched cards could be ‘programmed’ to perform multiple calculations.
By now, Babbage – despite being frustrated in his attempts to gaining support for his machine in England – was attracting attention from the rest of the world. In 1840, he gave a lecture on the device in Turin, prompting Italian mathematician L.F. Menabrea to write an article on Babbage’s engine, which he published in 1842 in French. Babbage had never written down the theory behind his machine. So, in 1843, he asked Ada if she would translate the paper.
Ada had, by now, been married for eight years and had three children. However, she had continued with her mathematical studies, as a means of steadying her impulses and for her own pleasure. She agreed to take on the task. However, the result was no mere translation. Instead, it formed an entirely new paper that not only explained Babbage’s concept but also expanded upon it and explored how the analytical machine could be broadened beyond application to mathematics. Using the system of Bernoulli numbers, Ada illustrated how Babbage’s card system could be simplified by the application of ‘cycles” and “cycles of cycles’ that would reduce the number of “operation cards” used to program the machine.
This process formed just part of the resulting paper, “The Sketch of the Analytical Machine ‘ which was published in 1843 in Taylors Scientific Memoirs. The paper was anonymously at Ada’s behest, with only the initials A.A.L hinting at the identity of the author. Ada’s system of Bernoulli numbers, still in use today is often cited as the first published example of a computer programme. It also led to Babbage dubbing her his “Enchantress of Number.”
However, it was not Ada’s mathematical skills that made her paper remarkable. These, according to one of her biographers Dorothy Stein, have been somewhat overrated, as some of her calculations containing schoolgirl errors. Instead, it was her vision of what the Analytical Engine could do that that made her paper remarkable. Ada was able to see the potential of the machine, state how she would improve it and outline how she believed it could be used in other disciplines. In short, she was visualizing the Analytical Engine as a computer. Ada was applying her imagination to science. She had found a rational application for the vision she inherited from her father. However, poetic science was not her only Byronic trait.