Weaving the computer age.

With this post I’m going to lose whatever reputation I might have with all the feminist and politically correct denizens of the blogahedron. Why, because I intend to explode one of the greatest myths in the history of the computer. It is universally claimed that Ada Lady Lovelace was the world’s first programmer, the US Department of Defence even named a computer programme after her to celebrate this fact; this claim is total rubbish. Already in the 19th century Babbage’s son pointed out that the credit given to Lovelace for her memoir on his fathers Analytical engine was due to his father and not to her. Lovelace has the role of a populariser, deliberately exploited by Babbage to help him in his never ending search for financing of his computer projects. The programme that Lovelace describes for generating Bernoulli numbers was created by Babbage and not by her.


This portrait of Jacquard was woven in silk on a Jacquard loom and required 24,000 punched cards to create (1839). It was only produced to order. One of these portraits in the possession of Charles Babbage inspired him in using perforated cards in his analytical engine. It is in the collection of the Science Museum in London, England. Source: Wikimedia Commons

So Charles Babbage is the first programmer and not Ada Lovelace, well, actually no Babbage borrowed the concept for programming his analytical engine from today’s birthday boy the French silk weaver, Joseph Maria Jacquard, 7th July 1752. Jacquard developed the idea of using punch cards to programme the weaving patterns on his power weaving looms. If anybody should receive the credit for being the first programmer then it’s Joseph Jacquard and not Ada Lovelace.


Filed under History of Computing, Myths of Science

8 responses to “Weaving the computer age.

  1. Peter Lund

    My vote is for Heron of Alexandria.

    From wikipedia:
    “Hero also invented many mechanisms for the Greek theater, including an entirely mechanical play almost ten minutes in length, powered by a binary-like system of ropes, knots, and simple machines operated by a rotating cylindrical cogwheel. The sound of thunder was produced by the mechanically-timed dropping of metal balls onto a hidden drum.”

    (You can read his own words in “Peri automatopoietikes” — video of a reconstruction here: http://www.newscientist.com/blog/technology/2007/07/programmable-robot-from-60ad.html )

    Or Yan Shi, maybe?

    In any case, if you have enough rope and enough power, you can compute a lot of things just by moving a few pegs around on an a rod. (and Heron certainly knew how to implement the power part.)

    • Yes, we must never forget Heron of Alexandria! He was also the inventor of the steam engine but since there were plenty of slaves at hand back then, there was no need for setting off an industrial revolution like the Brits did almost 2000 years later!

  2. Ian H Spedding FCD

    Didn’t James Burke touch on this in Connections? Either way, what is fascinating is that, when viewed from this perspective, what you are describing looks like a form of conceptual evolution. Computers look as if they are intelligently designed and, of course, they are. But they didn’t spring de novo, fully-formed from the mind of one or a few people. Like so many other things, as Burke illustrated, they represent the co-option and adaptation and integration of concepts that were never intended for that purpose by their originators. Something which the IDeologues have a hard time grasping.

    • As the Albino Aussie Anthropoid and I both say science (and that means ideas) evolves!

      • Hmm, one point: Ada is a programming language. The compilers are programs I guess, but the language is what was named after Lovelace back in the 80s.

        It evolved out of prior structured languages like Pascal (named after another not-programmer) and is an ancestor to some of the object oriented languages of today.

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