Christmas Trilogy 2015 Part 2: Understanding the Analytical Engine.

The Acolytes of the Holy Church of Saint Ada still persist in calling her a brilliant mathematician and the ‘first computer programmer’ despite the fact that both are provably wrong. In fact they have now moved into the realm of denialists, similar to evolution or climate denialists, in that they accuse people like myself who point to the historical facts of being male chauvinists who are trying to deny women their rights in the history of science! However the acolytes have gone a step further in the adulation of Lady King in that they now claim that she understood the Analytical Engine better than Babbage! Confronted by this patently ridiculous claim I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. Babbage conceived, designed and attempted to construct parts of the Analytical Engine whereas Ada Lovelace merely wrote an essay about it based on her exchanges with Babbage on the subject, to suggest that she understood the machine better than its sole creator borders on the insane. I cannot be certain who first set this bizarre claim in the world as nearly all of those who repeat it give neither justification or source for their utterances but the most often quoted in this context is James Essinger and his biography of Ada, which appears to enjoy several different titles[1].

Trial model of a part of the Analytical Engine, built by Babbage, as displayed at the Science Museum (London). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Trial model of a part of the Analytical Engine, built by Babbage, as displayed at the Science Museum (London).
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Before going into detail it should be pointed out the Essinger’s book, which is popular rather then academic and thus lacks sources for many of his claims, suffers from two fundamental flaws. Like much pro Ada writing it doesn’t delve deep enough into the live and work of Charles Babbage. This type of writing tends to treat Babbage as an extra in the film of Ada’s life, whereas in reality in relation to the Analytical Engine it is Ada who is a minor character in Babbage’s life. Also Essinger writes about the translation of the Menabrea essay on the Analytical engine as if the appended notes were exclusively the product of Ada’s brain, whereas it is an established fact from the correspondence that they were very much a co-production between Babbage and Lovelace based on many exchanges both in personal conversations and in that correspondence. This means that in basing any argument on any idea contained in those notes the writer has the job of determining, which of the two would be the more probable source of that idea and not simply blindly attribute it to Ada. As we shall see Essinger’s failure to do this leads to a major flaw in his central argument that Ada understood the Analytical Engine better than Babbage.

Essinger’s approach is two pronged. On the one side he claims that Babbage didn’t understand the future potential of the machine that he, and he alone, conceived and created (on paper at least) and on the other he proposes on the basis of his interpretation of Note A of the essay that Ada, whom he assumes to be the originator of the thoughts this not contains, had a vision of the Analytical engine equivalent to modern computer science. As we shall see Essinger is mistaken on both counts.

Whilst offering absolutely no source for his claim, Essinger states time and again throughout his book that Babbage only every conceived of the Analytical Engine as a device for doing mathematics, a super number cruncher so to speak. If Essinger had taken the trouble to elucidate the origins of Babbage’s inspiration for the Analytical Engine he would know that he is seriously mistaken in his view, although in one sense he was right in thinking that Babbage concentrated on the mathematical aspects of the Engine but for reasons that Essinger doesn’t consider anywhere in his book.

Babbage lived in the middle of the Industrial Revolution and was fascinated by mechanisation and automation throughout his entire life. During the 1820s Babbage travelled throughout the British Isles visiting all sorts of industrial plant to study and analyse their uses of mechanisation and automation. In 1827 his wife, Georgiana, died and Babbage who had married against the opposition of his father out of love was grief stricken. Leaving Britain to escape the scene of his sorrow Babbage, by now having inherited his fathers fortune a rich man, spent many months touring the continent carrying out the same survey of the industrial advances in mechanisation and automation wherever his wanderings took him. It was on this journey that he first learnt of the automated Jacquard loom that would supply him with the idea of programming the Analytical Engine with punch cards. Returning to Britain Babbage now turned all those years of research into a book, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures published in 1832, that is a year before he met Ada Lovelace for the first time and ten years before Menabrea essay was written. The book was a massive success going through six editions in quick succession and influencing the work of Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill amongst others. It would be safe to say that in 1832 Babbage knew more about mechanisation and automation that almost anybody else on the entire planet and what it was capable of doing and which activities could be mechanised and/or automated. It was in this situation that Babbage decided to transfer his main interest from the Difference Engine to developing the concept of the Analytical Engine conceived from the very beginning as a general-purpose computer capable of carrying out everything that could be accomplished by such a machine, far more than just a super number cruncher.


What is true, however, is that Babbage did concentrate in his plans and drafts, and the Analytical Engine never got past the plans and drafts phase, on the mathematical aspects of the machine. This however does not mean that Babbage considered it purely as a mathematical machine. I am writing this post on a modern state of the art computer. I also use the same device to exchange views with my history of sciences peers on Twitter and Facebook, to post my outpourings, such as this one, on my Internet blog. I can telephone, with visual contact if I choose, with people all over the world using Skype. At the touch, or two, of a keyboard key I have access to dictionaries, encyclopaedias and all sorts of other reference tools and through various means I can exchange documents, photographs, sound files and videos with anybody who owns a similar device. I can listen to and watch all sorts of music recordings and videos and with easily accessible software even turn my computer into an unbelievably flexible musical instrument. Finally when I’m done for the day I can settle back and watch television on my large, high-resolution monitor screen. This is only a fraction of the tasks that my computer is capable of carrying out but they all have one thing in common, they can all only be accomplished if they are capable of being coded into an astoundingly banal logical language consisting only of ‘0s’ and ‘1s’. Of course between the activities I carry out on my monitor screen and the electrical circuits that are only capable of reading those ‘0s’ and ‘1s’ there are layer upon layer of so-called sub-routines and sub-sub-routines and sub-sub-sub…, you get the idea, translating an upper layer into a simpler logical form until we get all the way down to those ubiquitous ‘0s’ and ‘1s’. The language in which those ‘0s’ and ‘1s’ exist is a mathematical language, known as Boolean Algebra, and so in the final analysis my super smart ultra modern computer is nothing but a super number cruncher and only two numbers at that.

Babbage, a brilliant mathematician, was well aware that he could only programme his Engine to carry out tasks that could be reduced over a series of steps to a mathematical language and this is the reason he concentrated on the mathematical aspects of his machine but this by no means meant that he only conceived of it only carrying out mathematical tasks, as we will see when addressing Essinger’s second prong.

Essinger quotes the following passage from Note A of the Malebrea translation:

In studying the action of the Analytical Engine, we find that the peculiar and independent nature of the considerations which in all mathematical analysis belong to operations, as distinguished from the objects operated upon and from the results of the operations performed upon those objects, is very strikingly defined and separated.

It is well to draw attention to this point, not only because its full appreciation is essential to the attainment of any very just and adequate general comprehension of the powers and mode of action of the Analytical Engine, but also because it is one which is perhaps too little kept in view in the study of mathematical science in general. It is, however, impossible to confound it with other considerations, either when we trace the manner in which that engine attains its results, or when we prepare the data for its attainment of those results. It were much to be desired, that when mathematical processes pass through the human brain instead of through the medium of inanimate mechanism, it were equally a necessity of things that the reasonings connected with operations should hold the same just place as a clear and well-defined branch of the subject of analysis, a fundamental but yet independent ingredient in the science, which they must do in studying the engine. The confusion, the difficulties, the contradictions which, in consequence of a want of accurate distinctions in this particular, have up to even a recent period encumbered mathematics in all those branches involving the consideration of negative and impossible quantities, will at once occur to the reader who is at all versed in this science, and would alone suffice to justify dwelling somewhat on the point, in connexion with any subject so peculiarly fitted to give forcible illustration of it as the Analytical Engine.

Attributing its contents to Ada he makes the following comment, “What Ada is emphasising here is the clear distinction between data and data processing: a distinction we tend to take for granted today, but which – like so much of her thinking about computers –was in her own day not only revolutionary but truly visionary”. What is being described here is indeed new in Ada’s day but is a well known development in mathematics know at the time as the Calculus of Operations, a branch of mathematics developed in the first half of the nineteenth century, which differentiates between operators and operations, and in which Babbage worked and to which he made contributions. If the ideas contained in this passage are indeed visionary then the vision is Babbage’s being channelled by Ada and not originating with her. The words might be Ada’s but the thoughts they express are clearly Babbage’s.

Essinger now quotes the next part of the Note:

It may be desirable to explain, that by the word operation, we mean any process which alters the mutual relation of two or more things, be this relation of what kind it may. This is the most general definition, and would include all subjects in the universe. In abstract mathematics, of course operations alter those particular relations which are involved in the considerations of number and space, and the results of operations are those peculiar results which correspond to the nature of the subjects of operation. But the science of operations, as derived from mathematics more especially, is a science of itself, and has its own abstract truth and value; just as logic has its own peculiar truth and value, independently of the subjects to which we may apply its reasonings and processes.

Essinger now reaches maximum bullshit level, “Ada is seeking to do nothing less than invent the science of computing and separate it from the science of mathematics. What she calls ‘the science of operations’ is indeed in effect computing”. As I have already explained what she calls the ‘science of operations’ is in fact the calculus of operation a new but well developed branch of mathematics of which Babbage was fully cognisant. If anybody is inventing the science of computing it is once again Babbage and not Ada.

Essinger now takes up the case further along in Note A:

The distinctive characteristic of the Analytical Engine, […]is the introduction into it of the principle which Jacquard devised for regulating, by means of punched cards, the most complicated patterns in the fabrication of brocaded stuffs… […]The bounds of arithmetic [emphasis in original] were however outstepped the moment the idea of applying the cards had occurred; and the Analytical Engine does not occupy common ground with mere “calculating machines.” It holds a position wholly its own; and the considerations it suggests are most interesting in their nature. In enabling mechanism to combine together general [emphasis in original] symbols in successions of unlimited variety and extent, a uniting link is established between the operations of matter and the abstract mental processes of the most abstract [emphasis in original] branch of mathematical science. [Ellipsis in quote by Essinger]

Essinger introduces this quote with the following: “In a terse passage she explains (perhaps better than Babbage ever could, who as designer saw many trees but perhaps no longer the forest itself) the essential relationship between the Analytical Engine and the Jacquard loom and how it is different from the earlier invention”. After the quote he then writes: “In perhaps one of the most visionary sentences written during the nineteenth century [he sure doesn’t hold back on the hyperbole], she lays out what these cards shall be capable of doing by way of programming the machine”

First off, if you put back the bits Essinger removed from this passage it is anything but terse, in fact it’s rather verbose. Is Essinger really trying to tell us that Babbage was not aware of what he was doing when he conceived of programming his Engine with punch cards? Unfortunately for Essinger Babbage himself tells us that this is not the case, writing in his notebook on 10 July 1836, that is 8 years before the original French version of the Malebrea essay was published, he has the following to say:

This day I had for the first time a general but very indistinct conception of the possibility of making the engine work out algebraic developments – I mean without any reference to the value of the letters. My notion is that as the cards (Jacquards) of the calc. engine direct a series of operations and the recommence with the first…[2]

Here we have in Babbage’s own words the germ of the idea contained in the Ada quote, an idea that would naturally mature over the intervening nine years before Ada wrote her piece, so I have problems whatsoever in again attributing the thoughts contained here to Babbage.

I’m not going to go on analysing Essinger’s Ada hagiography for almost all of the things that he attributes to Ada it is not difficult to find its origins in Babbage’s work thus reinforcing the claim in an earlier post that Ada is being used here as Babbage’s mouth piece. Not so much the originator as the parrot. I will however close with one last quote from Note A and Essinger’s comment to demonstrate that his grasp of the history of science in the nineteenth century is apparently almost non-existent. Without really introducing it Essinger quotes the following sentence:

Those who view mathematical science, not merely as a vast body of abstract and immutable truths, whose intrinsic beauty, symmetry and logical completeness, when regarded in their connexion together as a whole, entitle them to a prominent place in the interest of all profound and logical minds, but as possessing a yet deeper interest for the human race, when it is remembered that this science constitutes the language through which alone we can adequately express the great facts of the natural world, and those unceasing changes of mutual relationship which, visibly or invisibly, consciously or unconsciously to our immediate physical perceptions, are interminably going on in the agencies of the creation we live amidst: those who thus think on mathematical truth as the instrument through which the weak mind of man can most effectually read his Creator’s works, will regard with especial interest all that can tend to facilitate the translation of its principles into explicit practical forms.

Essinger wonderingly comments on this sentence, “This 158-word sentence is very likely one of the longest sentences in the history of science, but it is also one of the most intriguing. Ada succeeds in this one sentence in linking mathematics, science, religion and philosophy.” Any competent historian of science would immediately recognise this as a rather flowery expression of the basic tenets of natural theology, a philosophy that flourished in the first half of the nineteenth century. This statement could have been made by a very large number of natural philosophers starting with Isaac Newton and going up to and beyond William Whewell and Charles Babbage, for example in the dispute that I outlined on this day last year. What this example clearly illustrates is that Essinger is in no way a real historian who researches and understands his sources but one who thinks he can read the text of Note A and interpret it on the basis of his lack of knowledge rather than on his procession of it.

[1] The copy I read was James Essinger, A Female Genius: how Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter started the computer age, London 2015

[2] Babbage notebook quote taken from Dorothy Stein, Ada: A Life and a Legacy, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts &London, 1985 p.102


Filed under History of Computing, Myths of Science

6 responses to “Christmas Trilogy 2015 Part 2: Understanding the Analytical Engine.

  1. Busy Sweet Mom

    Wow!! Great!!

  2. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazete: Year2, Vol. #24 | Whewell's Ghost

  3. Sadly, the Ada Lovelace juggernaut shows no sign of being brought to a halt by awkward facts (as in your well-researched articles). Here is the latest from a Professor of Computer Science at Oxford.
    At least she does admit that some of the claims for Lovelace are hype.

  4. Phil H

    A somewhat more balanced view than either Essinger’s or yours can be found here:

  5. Walter Hehl

    thanks for being such a productive and competent writer! You keep even us readers busy – how can you manage to write all this?

    I think you are probably a bit to harsh to Lady Ada.
    The great physicist Michael Faraday (whom she tried to get as a tutor) had characterized her mildly and geistreich as “a fairy“, himself as “a tortoise”:
    “Dear Mr Faraday,
    I am exceedingly tickled with your comparison of yourself to a tortoise. It has excited all my fun (& I assure you I have no little of that in me).
    I am also struck with the forcible truth of your designation of my character of mind:
    ‘elasticity of intellect’.
    It is indeed the very truth, most happily put into language.”

    She had also asked him (in my words) “how the electricity in the nervous system and the brain works”, in order to develop “a calculus of the nervous system” as she writes to her friend Woronzow Greig.

    The problem in your sense, Chris, arises when one tries to see her opus as science or engineering. Seen from today (“presentistic” in a positive sense), this (and other ideas) are astonishing visionary and are pointing in the right direction of development. The engineer as (careful) tortoise and the lady as airy fairy are perfect allegories and poetic Myers-Briggs human type indicators.

    The table with the procedures to calculate the Bernoulli numbers is hard tortoise work. It is a question to you Historians: is this an escapee in her lyric opus showing that she could occasionally be a down-to-earth tortoise, too, or just a blind copy of Babbage? This is probably more important in order to do justice to her than the question “Who wrote the first program?”

    In any case, a sentence as
    “The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves”
    is beautiful and intrinsically correct, although she was no mathematician, no computer scientist. Probably you could give her these terms just honoris causa:
    “An honorary degree or a degree honoris causa (Latin: “for the sake of the honor”) is an academic degree for which a university (or other degree-awarding institution) has waived the usual requirements ….” (Wikipedia)

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