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Posted: Tuesday October 14, 2014
Three Books for Ada Lovelace, the First Computer Programmer, on Her Day

Did you know the world’s first computer programmer was a woman?

Ada Lovelace was as a young woman enthralled by mathematics. She is also known for her lineage; she was the only (legitimate) child of Romantic poet Lord Byron. Though Byron separated from Ada’s mother, Annabella, a month after Ada was born, Ada maintained an interest in her father throughout her life – but it was Annabella who encouraged Ada’s interest in mathematics.

Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, 1840 (age 25)

When she was a young adult, Lovelace befriended another earnest, British mathematician: Charles Babbage was working on an early mechanical general-purpose computer that he called the Analytical Engine. Babbage and Lovelace developed a lasting friendship and produced much correspondence. In the early 1840s, Lovelace translated for Babbage and for the general public an essay that had been written on the Analytical Engine by an Italian military engineer named Luigi Menabrea. She supplemented her translation with an elaborate set of notes of her own, simply called Notes, which contain what many consider to be the first computer program, in the form of an algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine.

And today is Ada Lovelace Day! Ada Lovelace Day, which is celebrated in the United Kingdom, is an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

By complete coincidence, Talon has recently published no fewer than three titles that make mention of Lovelace.

First on the list is Garry Thomas Morse’s latest book, Minor Expectations, which resumes his The Chaos! Quincunx novel series. The fifth chapter of this novel comprises a series of (fictitious) letters from Lovelace.

In these letters, Lovelace tells of her attempts to cut down on laudanum, is convinced of visits from an enigmatic Enchantress who will not only help her explain Babbage’s Analytical Engine, but encourage her opium-fuelled hopes to bequeath to future generations a “Calculus of the Nervous System,” as in the below letter (from page 147 of Minor Expectations):

June 21, 1833

Frond. Surely you will have difficulty believing what I am about to tell you, but today Mama & I went to see the thinking machine. – We know not what other moniker to lend it. Not infrequently, Mr Babbage refers to this friendly Beast as his Engine. It raised several Nos. to the 2nd & 3rd powers and extracted the root of a quadratic Equation. The most common operation is a form of brisk counting applied to variable ratios, which appeared to many an Occult principle of change indeed. –

Each member of our party was struck dumb by this demonstration, although I cannot confess to sharing their bemusement. – Call the moment Fatidical if you will, but within those unseen workings I felt an intense stirring up of my entire being, not to sully my perception with prophecy – observe sleeping within me & that prodigious machine this desire to relate an evident purpose of the Utmost Import! – Sadly, I must close, since I am anxious to inform Mr Babbage of the fullness of my understanding & to candidly discuss with him the most immediate means for enacting their practical application. –

Yours affecly
A. Ada Byron

Minor Expectations is available now for $16.95.

Lovelace and Babbage also make a fanciful appearance in the inventory-novel Wigrum (Fall 2013) by Daniel Canty (translated by Oana Avasilichioaei). The entry ”Binary Keys,” which begins on page 55, relays the following:

The dual-key lock of the [Analytical Engine] prototype’s motor required one key to start the machine and another key to stop it. The starting key never left the inside pocket of Babbage’s frock coat. After her programming sessions, Lady Lovelace would slip the second key in her bustier or garter belt. Babbage, full of praise for his partner, said to whomever would listen: “As long as she and I work together, there will be no halting our ratiocinations.”

… Oswaldina Canción claimed to have gotten wind of Babbage’s project and proposed an investment in return for a visit to the laboratory. Canción was in fact the assumed identity of the German spy Eva Buttermaul. … Although she had only basic training in electricity and mechanics at Wuppertal Gymnasium, Frau Buttermaul could, at a glance, reconstruct the blueprints of the most complex machines.

We believe that Lovelace and Frau Buttermaul were lovers and that the latter pilfered the key from Ada, as well as some punch cards, thanks to their pillow talk. What’s more, Ada was in the habit of borrowing the starting key from Babbage, who was often busy in town talking with potential investors or specialized technicians. Buttermaul was able to obtain a duplicate of the starting key by surreptitiously borrowing it from Ada, absorbed in her calculations, and copying it at the local locksmith. Buttermaul’s admirers, impossible lovers hard put to recognize her licentiousness, maintain instead that Buttermaul simply applied her gift of analysis to the two keys glimpsed in Babbage’s coat and Lovelace’s bustier.

… The journals and correspondence between Babbage and Lovelace make no mention of this unfortunate incident and British authorities refuse to confirm the truth of these facts.

Wigrum, available in print or as an ebook for $14.95, is full of such tall tales, historical romps, and discovered plots.

A new collection of poetry by Sandra Huber takes Lovelace more seriously; she appears throughout Assembling the Morrow: A Poetics of Sleep, sometimes in sustained discussions, other times only incidentally.

The below excerpt from Assembling the Morrow is taken from the main “essay” – a long prose poem, really – called “The Room.” It opens the book and sets up three key influences on the book: Lovelace, Gertrude Stein, and Hans Berger (and all sleep scientists since him). The subtitle “Love” refers to one of a few sub-sections from which the excerpt is taken.


“O sacred Muses, here let dead Poetry rise again, and here let Calliope sound, a moment.”

It’s 1843.
Augusta Ada King, countess of Lovelace, translates L. F. Menabrea’s “Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage” from French into English. “Mr. Babbage has devoted some years to the realization of a gigantic idea,” writes Menabrea translates Lovelace. “He proposed nothing less than the construction of a machine capable of executing not merely arithmetical calculations, but even all those of analysis, if their laws are known.”

It’s 1912.
Gertrude Stein finishes one of her first portraits, this one called “Two”: “The sound there is in them comes out from them. Each one of them has sound in them. Each one of them has sound coming out of them. There are two of them. . . . Sound is coming out of each one of them, out of each one of the two of them. Sound is in them in each one of the two of them. Each one of the two of them is having sound coming out of them.”

It’s 1929 and
Hans Berger publishes his first report on the Elektrenkephalogramm, after five years of shrouding his laboratory at the Jena Psychiatric Hospital in absolute secrecy. His discovery is a gigantic idea: spontaneous electrical signals can be picked up on the surface of the human skull. Its registrations pieces of time, moment passing to moment with slight changes in hertz (Hz) and microvolt (µV), akin to the portraits of Gertrude Stein that preceded it, the machine reveals something of a world that is never quite the same, never wholly different, a translation of the continuous tense into lines.

But it wasn’t just translation. When Babbage saw that Ada Lovelace, daughter of poet Lord Byron and mathematician Anne Isabella Milbanke (“Princess of Parallelograms”), had translated Menabrea’s Sketch of his engine, he invited the Lady, then all of twenty-eight, to put together some accompanying notes. These Notes were not only three times the length of the piece translated, but Babbage himself watched as they extended his engine beyond its conceived use, bringing it into realms previously unimaginable for a machine to step. “Supposing, for instance,” wrote Lovelace lightly, playfully, in Note A, “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.” And later, in Note E, “The engine can arrange and combine its numerical quantities exactly as if they were letters.” Though famous for being the first computer programmer (it’s disputed), Lovelace should be equally known for a radical, if not conflicted, consilience. Remaining an outsider to the sciences and the arts alike, whether by choice or not, Lovelace was able to see into them both; by doing so, she could enter through the other door. Looking beyond the mechanisms to envision the morrow, she watched the machine and saw it flicker back.

Lovelace was certainly her parents’ child: as much as she was a mathematician because of her mother, she loved poetry as her father did. Later in Assembling the Morrow, Huber writes that Lovelace

did not necessarily cross domains but remained somewhere between them, creating a third space entirely that never quite became defined. This leaves her place in history as full of contradictions as her person. She was rigorous and she was capricious. She’d refer to calculus and the Bernoulli numbers in the same letter (to Babbage) that she’d refer to herself as “the lady-fairy”; she would combine languages into constructions like “Monday Morg,” speak of “mathematical weather,” alternately state that numbers were the only language and that “I cannot endure another person to meddle with my sentences.” She did not know what would come of it all.

What came of it all is her legacy, which we commemorate today. Lovelace died of cancer at age 36, just a few years after the publication of “Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator.” The Analytical Engine was never built, but Lovelace’s notes were critical in inspiring Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computers in the 1940s, and she has become an example to women everywhere who have ambitions in the fields of science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. For Ada Lovelace Day, spread the word about women you know who work in science, engineering, or technology, write a blog about one of them, or support Ada Lovelace Day Live! 2014 on IndieGoGo.

Is it any surprise that this enigmatic woman has captured imaginations? No. Curious, though, that these three works should emerge contemporaneously. Curious, but wonderful.

Further Reading