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Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace: The computer’s most passionate partnership

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Is it really possible to imagine what life was like in the nineteenth century? I’m not sure it is: biographers are ultimately limited to taking a perspective on the past from their own contemporary position. They need to do their best to try to get into, and interpret, the mindset of the historical people they are writing about based on extant evidence and also of course on the biographer’s common sense and knowledge of human nature.

In the case of Charles Babbage (1791-1871) and Ada Lovelace, who was born Ada Byron (1815-1852), the task is made slightly easier because they were highly exceptional people living among privilege and wealth. There is also a fair amount of surviving correspondence between them – though there are far more letters from Ada to Babbage than vice versa – and also considerable contemporary comments about them because they were famous even in their own time.

Babbage was famous for being an eccentric genius and Ada for being the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron. He married on Monday, January 2 1815 and lived with his wife for a year and twelve days before she - very understandably, given his infidelity towards her and strange behaviour – left him, taking Ada with her.

Babbage was the son of a wealthy banker, Benjamin Babbage, who came from the town of Totnes in Devon. When Benjamin died in 1827 he left his son Charles about £100,000 in money, property and plate. This sum would be worth about £10 million today. It was enough for Babbage to spend the rest of his life living in financial security and comparative comfort. His home was at 1 Dorset Street, Marylebone, London, but he travelled extensively in Britain and abroad, though unlike his good friend Charles Dickens, Babbage never went to America, which Dickens did twice.

Ada, for her part, was a precocious and fascinating child who dreamed of building a flying-machine powered by steam when she was only twelve years old. She always yearned for a life of the mind, but even a lady as privileged as Ada found her life pretty much completely circumscribed by the culture and morality of her day.

It was believed at the time - at least by men - that women were less intelligent than men because they had on average smaller brains. This is in fact true at a biological level but it makes no difference to women’s intelligence whatsoever. There was also a widespread perception that a woman should essentially be a decorative ornament, her function being to produce children, run the house and provide the husband with sexual pleasures.

Ada was given a good education at home by tutors and governesses hired by her mother, Lady Byron. Babbage was also educated privately, but at schools rather than at home. He did well at Cambridge University and after settling in London with his wife Georgiana in 1814 and living on an allowance provided by his father, Charles became a gentleman mathematician. He wrote worthy, but not especially earth-shattering, papers on mathematical and economic subjects. He was apparently set for a life of quiet, relatively obscure mathematical prowess until, one summer day in 1821 – the exact day is not known – Babbage had a prodigiously important epiphany.

Babbage’s sudden vision was a cogwheel-based calculating machine that would allow mathematical tables – so important at the time for making vital mathematical calculations for navigation, construction and all sorts of other practical functions – to be calculated reliably by machinery.

This meant the tables could be calculated reliably and methodically rather than relying on the mental arithmetic of clerks. These clerks, who were actually called ‘computers’, were virtuosos in mental arithmetic aided by jotting down their working-out, but they still made the mistakes that humans are prone to making.

Babbage pursued his dream of building such a machine for the rest of his life and in the end designed two machines: the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine.

The Difference Engine, which was the calculator of mathematical tables, was less ambitious than the Analytical Engine, which is seen as essentially the world’s first digital computer.

In his lifetime, Babbage completed neither machine and the Analytical Engine was never more than a detailed and fascinating plan. But in the year 2002, a team of scientists working under Doron Swade, the curator of computing at the London Science Museum, who was subsequently justifiably awarded an MBE for his work, completed a fully working, full-sized model of the Difference Engine. Swade and his team were careful only to use components which would have been available to Babbage, and only to employ levels of precision which he could have achieved, though the actual cogwheels were manufactured by modern engineering techniques.

This remarkable and indeed wonderful endeavour proved that Babbage’s Difference Engine could have been built in the nineteenth century.

Ada first met Babbage on June 5 1833. She was fascinated by him and even more so when, shortly afterwards, Ada went with her mother to visit Babbage at his home in Marylebone.

There they saw the only completed portion of the Difference Engine in action: one-seventh part of it which did work rather well, although of course it did not do everything that the fully working Difference Engine would have done.

Ada in effect fell in love with the machine and became a close friend of Babbage. Although it is impossible to know exactly how their friendship progressed, it is quite clear from the correspondence which survives – which is unquestionably only a small fragment of the letters they actually exchanged with each other, many of which have been lost of destroyed by Lady Byron after Ada’s death – they had a close and even romantic friendship. While this almost certainly never reached a physical dimension, or at least there is no clear evidence that it did, their relationship was about as close to a love affair as it could possibly have been.

In Charles and Ada: the Computer’s Most Passionate Partnership, I look at that personal and professional love affair in detail.

I conclude – and I think the evidence for this is overwhelming – that in many ways while Babbage was the father of the computer, it was Ada who really is the mother of the modern computer. This is because Babbage only saw his machine, even the Analytical Engine, as a sophisticated mathematical calculator. Ada, on the other hand, in a remarkable burst of genius – she called her insights into science ‘poetical science’ and certainly she brought a poetical imagination to her analysis and thoughts about Babbage’s work – suggested that the Analytical Engine could be applied to govern all sorts of processes, even to compose music.

This, of course, is exactly how computers are used today. Most of us don’t use them to make mathematical calculations although, if we need them to do that they can do it for us. Mostly, though, we use them to control a myriad of devices and processes which we need for our daily lives; from our mobile phones to domestic appliances and everything else, whether the control of a jet airline cruising ten miles above the earth or a deep-drilling well penetrating just as far below the ground.

Computers are not so much a part of our world but make it possible, and what is so vital about Ada Lovelace is that in reading her writing about the Analytical Engine, we realise that in many ways she actually saw all this back in 1843.

That same year, on August 14, she wrote a 2,000-word letter to Babbage offering him her help with the Analytical Engine project. She ultimately knew that he was basically a back-room boffin and was hopeless at diplomacy and influencing the important and wealthy people who could in fact have provided funds to get an Analytical Engine built in the 1840s or 1850s.

But Babbage, in a disastrous act that resonates down the nineteenth century, rejected Ada’s suggestion and consequently there never was a computer revolution in 1843. In a novel I am currently working on, The Ada Lovelace Project, I postulate that this did happen and what the result of it might have been.

But that’s fiction; in Charles and Ada I look at the facts of one of the most remarkable and fascinating friendships in the history of science.

By James Essinger

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