Catching a code

This is part 5 of my series on the history and impact of distance education. In part 4, we saw how Charles Babbage developed his ideas to create one of the first computers - the Difference Engine.

One of Charles Babbage’s associates was a member of Britian’s aristocracy. Ada Byron, also known as Lady Lovelace, was the daughter of the romantic poet Lord (George) Byron, and she seems to have had a great deal of time on her hands. Some accounts suggest that she wished to become 'an analyst and a metaphysician' and that from a young age she had developed a passion for science - an aspiration that women were generally discouraged from following in 19th Century Britain. She didn't seem fazed by these restrictions though - and tended to follow her own ideals.

Ada was still in her teens when she heard of Charles Babbage's idea of the Analytical Engine - an automatic calculating system - and the successor to his earlier invention, the Difference Engine. Babbage had conjectured that a calculating engine might not only predict but could act on that prediction. Ada was very impressed by these ideas and began to speculate about her own contribution to the development of the calculating machine. Correspondence between Lady Lovelace and Babbage was by all accounts filled with a heady mixture of fact and fantasy, as they both began to speculate on how such a calculating device might be used. Lady Lovelace eventually published an article in which she predicted that Babbage's machine might be used for scientific and domestic use. This visionary account of the machine’s potential was uncanny in its accuracy, predicting its potential to perform a multitude of tasks such as playing music, creating pictures and composing letters. It's a pity we don't have someone of her calibre in the meteorological office today, predicting our weather for us.

Lady Lovelace suggested to Babbage that a plan might be formulated to enable the Difference Engine to calculate Bernoulli numbers (look, just follow the link). This suggestion is now seen by many as the earliest example of computer programming. It wasn't exactly C++ but it worked. Lord Byron's daughter, in her collaboration with the genius Charles Babbage, gave the world the second part of the computer equation - the knowledge that it was possible not only to create a computing device, but to write instructions for it to follow so that it could produce a defined result. The modern computer is based upon this premise. In 1979, the U.S. Department of Defense named a computer program 'Ada' in honour of her pioneering ideas.

Tomorrow: Part 6: Come the revolution...

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