Charles not Ada, Charles not Charles and Ada, just Charles…

The is an old saying in English, “if you’ve got an itch scratch it!” A medically more correct piece of advice is offered, usually by mothers in a loud stern voice, “Don’t scratch!”  I have had an itch since the start of December and have been manfully trying to heed the wise words of mother but have finally cracked and am going to have a bloody good scratch.

I actually don’t wish to dump on Lady Science, which I regard as a usually excellent website promoting the role of women in science, particularly in the history of science but the essay, Before Lovelace, that they posted 3 December 2020 is so full of errors concerning Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage that I simply cannot ignore it. In and of itself the main point that the concept of the algorithm exists in many fields and did so long before the invention of the computer is interesting and of course correct. In fact, it is a trivial point, that is trivial in the sense of simple and obvious. An algorithm is just a finite, step by step procedure to complete a task or solve a problem, a recipe!

My objections concern the wildly inaccurate claims about the respective roles of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace in the story of the Analytical Engine. Let us examine those claims, the essay opens at follows:

Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace loom large in the history of computing. These famous 19th-century figures are consistently cited as the origin points for the modern day computer: Babbage hailed as the “father of computing” and Lovelace as the “first computer programmer” Babbage was a mathematician, inventor, and engineer, famous for his lavish parties and his curmudgeonly attitude. Lady Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace was a mathematician and scientist, introduced to Babbage when she was a teenager. The two developed a long professional relationship, which included their collaborative work on a machine called the Analytical Engine, a design for the first mechanical, programmable computer.

They might be cited as the origin points of the modern-day computer, but such claims are historically wrong. For all of Babbage’s ingenuity in the design and conception of his mechanical, programmable calculating machines they played absolutely no role in and had no influence on the later development of the computer in the twentieth century. They were and remain an interesting historical anomaly. Regular readers of this blog will know that I reject the use of the expression “the father of” for anything in #histSTM and that for very good reasons. They will also know that I reject Ada Lovelace being called the “first computer programmer” for the very simple reason that she wasn’t. (See addendum below) I am of the opinion that Ada Lovelace was not a mathematician in any meaningful sense of the word, and she was in absolutely no way a scientist. Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage did not have a long professional relationship and did not collaborate on the design of the Analytical Engine, which was entirely the work of Charles Babbage alone, and in which Ada Lovelace played absolutely no part. Assigning co-authorship and co-development to Ada Lovelace for Babbage’s work is no different to saying that a journalist, who interviews a scientist about his research work and then write a puff piece about it, is the scientist’s co-researcher! The train-wreck continues:

Much of what we know about the Analytical Engine comes from Lovelace’s paper on the machine. In 1842, she published” A Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with notes by the Translator”,” a translation of an earlier article by mathematician Luigi Menabrea. Lovelace’s English translation of Menabrea’s article included her own extended appendix in which she elaborated on the machine’s design and proposed several early computer programs. Her notes were instrumental for Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computer in the 1930s. His work would later provide the basis for the Colossus computer, the world’s first large-scale programmable, electronic, digital computer, developed to assist with cryptography work during World War II. Machines like the Colossus were the precursors to the computers we carry around today in our pockets and our backpacks.

We actually know far more about the Analytical Engine from Babbage’s biography (see footnote 1) and his own extensive papers on it, which were collected and published by his son Henry, Babbage’s Calculating Engines: Being a Collection of Papers Relating to Them; Their History and Construction, Charles Babbage, Edited by Henry P. Babbage, CUP, 1889. The notes to the translation, which the author calls an appendix, we know to have been co-authored by Babbage and Lovelace and not as here stated written by Lovelace alone. There is only one computer program in the notes and that we know to have been written by Babbage and not Lovelace. (See addendum below) Her notes played absolutely no role whatsoever in Turing’s work in the 1930s, which was not on the first modern computer but on a problem in metamathematics, known as the Entscheidungsproblem (English: decision problem). Turing discussed one part of the notes in his paper on artificial intelligence, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, (Mind, October 1950). Turing’s 1930s work had nothing to do with the design of the Colossus, although his work on the use of probability in cryptoanalysis did. Colossus was designed and built by Tommy Flowers, who generally gets far too little credit for his pioneering work in computers. The Colossus played no role in the future development of computers because the British government dismantled or hid all of the Colossus computers from Bletchley Park after the war and closed access to the information on the Colossus for thirty years under the official secret act. We are not done yet:

With Babbage and Lovelace’s work as the foundation and the Turing Machine as the next step toward what we now think of as computers…

Babbage’s work, not Babbage’s and Lovelace’s, was not, as already stated above, the foundation and the Turing Machine was very definitely not the next step towards what we now think of as the computer. I really do wish that people would take the trouble to find out what a Turing Machine really is. It’s an abstract metamathematical concept that is useful for describing, on an abstract level, how a computer works and for defining the computing power or capabilities of a given computer. It played no role in the development of real computers in the 1940s and wasn’t even referenced in the computer industry before the 1950s at the very earliest. Small tip for future authors, if you are going to write about the history of the computer, it pays to learn something about that history before you start. We are approaching the finish line:

One part of the history of computing that is much less familiar is the role the textile industry played in Babbage and Lovelace’s plans for the Analytical Engine. In a key line from Lovelace’s publication, she observes, “we may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.” The Jacquard Loom was a mechanical weaving system controlled by a chain of punched cards. The punched cards were fed into the weaving loom and dictated which threads were activated as the machine wove each row. The result was an intricate textile pattern that had been “programmed” by the punch cards.

Impressed by the ingenuity of this automation system, Babbage and Lovelace used punched cards as the processing input for the Analytical Engine. The punched cards, Lovelace explains in her notes, contain “the impress of whatever special function we may desire to develop or to tabulate” using the machine.

Why is it that so many authors use ‘less familiar’ or ‘less well known’ about things that are very well known to those, who take an interest in the given topic? For those, who take an interest in Babbage and his computers, the fact that he borrowed the punch card concept from Jacquard’s mechanical, silk weaving loom is very well known. Once again, I must emphasise, Babbage and not Babbage and Lovelace. He adopted the idea of using punch cards to program the Analytical Engine entirely alone, Ada Lovelace was not in anyway involved in this decision.

Itch now successfully scratched! As, I said at the beginning the rest of the essay makes some interesting points and is well worth a read, but I really do wish she had done some real research before writing the totally crap introduction.


I have pointed out on numerous occasions that it was Babbage, who wrote the program for the Analytical Engine to calculate the Bernoulli numbers, as presented in Note G of the Lovelace memoir. He tells us this himself in his autobiography[1]. I have been called a liar for stating this and also challenged to provide evidence by people to lazy to check for themselves, so here are his own words in black and white (16-bit grayscale actually)

Babbage 01

[1] Charles Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, Green, London, 1864, p. 136


Filed under History of Computing, History of Logic

4 responses to “Charles not Ada, Charles not Charles and Ada, just Charles…

  1. Turing Machine really is …an abstract metamathematical concept

    What? Do you mean that mail-order machine that arrived yesterday may not be a real Turing Machine?

    Best wishes for the new year.

  2. Phillip Harmsworth

    Steve Wolfram provides some further background here:

    His view of Babbage’s remarks on Lovelace’s essay:
    “When I first read this, I thought Babbage was saying that he basically ghostwrote all of Ada’s Notes. But reading what he wrote again, I realize it actually says almost nothing, other than that he suggested things that Ada may or may not have used.”

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