Annotations and the Poetry of Science

15 March 2009

Ada Lovelace: daughter of Byron, friend of Dickens, muse of Babbage...and the world's first computer programmer - some thoughts for Ada Lovelace Day (24 March 2009)

Ada's mother was her first major influence, being interested in mathematics and keen that her daughter did not become a poet like her father, "hot-housed" Ada in the teaching of mathematics and music. The young Ada soon out-stripped her tutors and did not meet her intellectual equal until she was introduced to Babbage by a friend of her mother's.

This friendship was the most meaningful of her life and led her work describing Babbage's Analytical Engine, annotated to another author's memoir. Her work expanded to be three times the length of the original paper and described how the Analytical Engine could be programmed; thus she is regarded as the first computer programmer.

"We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard loom [regulated by punched cards] weaves flowers and leaves...on brocade."

Towards the end of her life, she sought inspiration from flights of fancy during long periods of illness, where she imagined that the Babbage's creation could be used to compose music and paint pictures. Interestingly, she never mentioned its use for composing poetry – perhaps as a result of her mother's antipathy; instead, Ada wrote of the "Poetry of Science".

How do people with these capabilities survive in the business world? The evidence seems to be that they thrive best in a pseudo-academic environment. Even then, it is often difficult for business to appreciate their ideas: for example, the commercial application of some of the researchers' inventions at Xerox Parc in the early Seventies where not fully appreciated at the time. In a similar way, staff working at Bletchley Park would relate that on a good day, they might have thought of their co-workers' ideas themselves– with the exception of Turing's, whose ideas were on a higher level altogether. Fortunately, in this case, Turing was able explain his ideas his employers.

Such people are rarely encountered in business and even then, perhaps fleetingly; the only co-worker I knew remotely near this capability was a character of whom it was difficult to actually catch working: she was always seemed to be reading a technical magazine or heading off for a cigarette break. However, she was able to solve the most difficult programming problems in a remarkably quick time. The last I heard, she left the software industry to become a wine buyer.

One wonders how Ada Lovelace would have taken to the business world. In the right environment, she would have thrived; instead, she is best remembered in the same way as another genius who died young – Pierre de Fermat - for an annotation.

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