The enchantress of numbers

The first algorithm was devised a century before the invention of the computer. It was developed by Ada Lovelace. Born into British aristocracy, her visionary ideas foreshadowed the digital age.

Written by Ralph Hofbauer
Illustration by Ryan Sanchez

September 07, 2020

Illustration of Ada Lovelace by Ryan Sanchez

They direct traffic, detect diseases at an early stage, help find relevant information, and recommend music. Algorithms are the helpful pixies of the digitalized world: They solve problems faster than we ever could and make our everyday lives a whole lot more comfortable.

Even though the term algorithm was coined by a man, the medieval mathematics scholar Al-Chwarizmi from Baghdad, it was a woman who first committed a set of instructions for the solving of a complex mathematical problem to paper. Ada Lovelace contemplated the programming of a machine that might have become the very first computer – if it had ever been realized.

Illustration "Ada Lovelace" by Ryan Sanchez

Two ingenious minds find each other

In the early 19th century, the British mathematician, philosopher, and inventor Charles Babbage developed the concept for a revolutionary steam-powered calculating machine: the Analytical Engine. The calculation commands were to be input by means of punched cards, a method that was used to program the mechanical weaving looms of that time. This meant that the Analytical Engine’s processing potential far outstripped the calculating machines that were just coming onto the market at that time.

Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace, recognized this potential. The young daughter of an aristocrat first visited Charles Babagge’s salon in London at the age of seventeen. He was so impressed by her prowess that he called her the “enchantress of numbers”. Her passion for numbers was no accident: The only legitimate daughter of the poet Lord Byron enjoyed a rigorous scientific education, with a focus on mathematics and logic. At the time, this was unusual for a young woman, after all, it would still take decades before women were permitted to study at universities. Ada’s mother hired private tutors because after her divorce from Lord Byron, she was determined to prevent her daughter from following in her father’s footsteps. Poetry was taboo in the Lovelace household.

A pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence

Illustration "Ada Lovelace" by Ryan Sanchez

For Charles Babbage, the Analytical Engine was above all a means for calculating number tables. However, Ada Lovelace realized that the invention could be capable of much more. Her extensive commentary on Babbage’s plans bears witness to this. Her notes, which were published in 1843, contain a written plan for calculating Bernoulli numbers in the form of a diagram. These instructions for the Analytical Engine are widely regarded as the first formal program in history, i.e. the first algorithm in the modern sense.

In her notes, Ada Lovelace anticipated the principles of computer technology, such as the distinction between hardware and software: She explained that the Analytical Engine has a physical part, the copper wheels and punched cards, and a symbolic par – the automatic calculations encoded in the punched cards. Ada’s notes clearly indicate that she envisioned a multi-purpose computer that could handle more than just arithmetic tasks. Ada Lovelace was also the first person to recognize the potential of artificial intelligence. Using the example of music composition, she described the creative possibilities of the technology as follows:

“Supposing that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”

A visionary thought, considering the fact that at that time the railroad system was only just beginning to pick up steam. It would take another century for other scientists to realize the vast potential of computer technology. Alan Turing was one of them, and to him, Ada Lovelace was an important source of inspiration. The creator of the Turing Test took a keen interest in the question of whether machines are capable of gaining their own insights, like humans. Unlike Turing, Lovelace did not believe this to be possible, and so he called the opposite standpoint “Lady Lovelace’s objection”.

“Supposing that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”

From assistant to role model

Ada Lovelace was never able to turn her vision into reality because the Analytical Engine would never be completed. On the one hand, due to insufficient funds, on the other, because at that time, precision mechanics were not sufficiently developed to manufacture certain components. But a replica proved: The machine actually works. The London Science Museum produced a full replica, including the printer that Charles Babbage had envisaged. The whole machine weighs five metric tons and consists of some 8,000 components.

In the meantime, the hardware developer stands in the shadow of the software engineer. The coding community reveres the pioneer, after whom the programming language Ada was named, like a patron saint. The second Tuesday of October has been declared Ada Lovelace Day, and every year, the Ada Lovelace Festival is held in Berlin and Zurich, bringing together women from the IT sector. Thus, the “enchantress of numbers” has become a role model for many young programmers.

Illustration "Ada Lovelace" by Ryan Sanchez

As a child, I was interested in cars, planes, and rocket ships. But since I have always been all thumbs and poor at math, becoming an engineer was never really an option. My fascination for technology has remained, among other things because humans and machines are growing ever closer together.
Illustration by Ryan Sanchez

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