The worst history of technology headline of the year?

The Guardian website produced a couple of articles to announce the publication of Sydney Padua’s graphic novel, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer. I strongly suspect that despite Padua’s qualifying ‘mostly’ in her subtitle what we will be presented with here bears very little relation to the historical facts. However, not actually having read the book, it is not the subject of this brief post but rather the Guardian article. This article is crowned with the following headline:

Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage designed a computer in the 1840s.

A cartoonist finishes the project.

 Can you spot the major howler in the very brief first sentence? Who designed a computer? Charles Babbage designed a computer. Ada Lovelace wrote a puff piece about that computer, which was in all probability largely ghost-written by Babbage. Just in case you should think that this was an inadvertent slip of a subeditor’s thumb on his computer keyboard the claim is repeated even more emphatically in the title of an illustration to the article.

200 years after Ada Lovelace’s birth, the Analytical Engine she designed with Charles Babbage is finally built, thanks to the imagination of Sydney Padua. Illustration: The Observer

In case you should still think that the writer of the piece could or should be excused of all blame, embarrassed by the hyperbolic flights of fancy of that technology history ignorant subeditor, we find the following in the main body of the article.

Brought up to shun the lure of poetry and revel instead in numbers, Lovelace teamed up with mathematician Charles Babbage who had grand plans for an adding machine, named the Difference Engine, and a computer called the Analytical Engine, for which Lovelace wrote the programs.

Where to begin? First off both the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine are computers. The former a special purpose computer and the latter a general purpose one. Babbage would have been deeply offended having his mighty Difference Engine denigrated to a mere adding machine, although all computers are by name adding machines; computer coming, as it does, from the Latin computare which means to reckon/compute/calculate, sum/count (up). As a brief aside, when the word computer was coined in the 17th century it referred to a person employed to do calculations. Second, and in this context most important, Lovelace did not write the programs for the Analytical Engine. The afore mentioned puff piece from her pen contained one, note the singular, specimen program for the Analytical Engine, which she might possibly have written, although it seems more probable that Babbage wrote it. All the other programs for the Analytical Engine, and there were others were written by, you’ve guessed it, Charles Babbage.

The deification of Ada Lovelace marches on a pace with the honest historian of the computer barely able to keep pace with the waves of mythology that pour out of the unsavvy media almost every day it seems.

14 Comments

Filed under History of Computing, Myths of Science

14 responses to “The worst history of technology headline of the year?

  1. A subeditor’s slip of the thumb? I doubt it. It’s just more feminist dishonesty. Tell it like it is.

    • AM

      Durrr, what is sarcasm?

      And you say this as though it’s an inherent feminist characteristic, instead of reductive, populist hagiography which is not exclusive to any particular political sphere or movement.

  2. The standard of science writing seems to be dropping everywhere. Here is a recent one from The Independent: “Earth was made by Jupiter clattering through the universe and destroying small planets”. The article itself is no better. If you know the actual research it refers to, you can pick the nuggets of sense out of it, but for those who have not (or haven’t seen it described much more accurately on Horizon, “Secrets of the Solar System” – 3 March) it was just gibberish.

  3. “Lovelace did no write the programs for the Analytical Engine.”
    I always enjoy your posts, but you really ought to copy edit them a bit more!

  4. Thony: “No, no we do it in public here it’s one of the blog’s charateristics”

    In the 5th paragraph
    “…..we “fined” the following in the main body of the article.”
    I generally don’t draw attention to any blog typos out of the fear that I may be misunderstood as someone who is just being petty. I understood what you were trying to say anyway.

  5. Phil Harmsworth

    Expecting productions of this kind to be historically accurate is a bit like expecting Superman comics to contain real-world physics.

    I assume that your ‘puff piece’ comment refers to Lovelace’s translation of Menabrea’s article, with additional notes (available online at http://www.fourmilab.ch/babbage/sketch.html). Inasmuch as it refers to something that doesn’t exist, it could be described as a ‘puff piece’, but I suspect it’s too turgid to qualify.

    If, as you suggest, Babbage wrote it, it’s hard to understand why he attributed it to Lovelace in his ‘Passages from the Life of a Philosopher’. Collier stated that Babbage did this ‘for reasons of his own’, which leaves us with the problem of establishing what these reasons might be.

    • I very clearly state in my post that I’m not going to comment on Sydney Padua’s graphic novel, which is after all obviously a work of fiction but that my comments concern the Guardian article which references the real Life Babbage and Lovelace.

      The ‘puff piece’ comment refers to the addition notes, Lovelace obviously didn’t write the Menabea article. It is a puff piece because it sets out to sell the concept of the Analytical Engine to the great British public.

      I suggest that Babbage ghosted it because the contents very much suggested that he did. Lovelace actually wrote it, as the phraseology is very much her’s and not Babbage’s. His own writings are far more turgid. The piece is comparable to a journalist conducting a long, extensive interview with an inventor and then reproducing the content of that interview in their own words, checking back continually with the interviewee to ensure that the content is accurate. We have the correspondence that confirms that process.

      Babbage got Lovelace to produce the piece thus in order to have a ‘neutral’ voice praising his Analytical Engine project in order to stimulate funding. This was also the purpose of the Turin lecture that Menabea reproduced in his essay. Both attempts must be regarded as a flop as Babbage failed to raise the money he required or should that be wished for.

  6. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #44 | Whewell's Ghost

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