Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Charles Babbage’

15 JUNE, 2015

How Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage Invented the World’s First Computer: An Illustrated Adventure in Footnotes and Friendship


The story of how an improbable pair forever changed our horizons of the possible.

In 1843, Ada Lovelace — the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron — translated a scientific paper by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea titled Sketch of an Analytical Engine, adding seven footnotes to it. Together, they measured 65 pages — two and half times the length of Menabrea’s original text — and included the earliest complete computer program, becoming the first true paper on computer science and rendering Lovelace the world’s first computer programmer. She was twenty-seven.

About a decade earlier, Lovelace had met the brilliant and eccentric British mathematician Charles Babbage who, when he wasn’t busy teaming up with Dickens to wage a war on street music, was working on strange inventions that would one day prompt posterity to call him the father of the computer. (Well, sort of.) The lifelong friendship that ensued between 18-year-old Lovelace and 45-year-old Babbage sparked an invaluable union of software and hardware to which we owe enormous swaths of modern life — including the very act of reading these words on this screen.

The unusual story of this Victorian power-duo is what graphic artists and animator Sydney Padua explores in the immensely delightful and illuminating The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (public library), itself a masterwork of combinatorial genius and a poetic analog to its subject matter — rigorously researched, it has approximately the same footnote-to-comic ratio as Lovelace’s trailblazing paper. The footnote, after all, is proto-hypertext linking one set of ideas to another, and in these analog hyperlinks, Padua draws on an impressive wealth of historical materials — from the duo’s scientific writings and lectures to Lovelace’s letters to Babbage’s autobiography to various accounts by their contemporaries.

Padua begins at the beginning, with Lovelace’s unusual upbringing as the daughter of Lord Byron, a “radical, adventurer, pan-amorist, and poet,” and Anne Isabella Millbanke, a “deeply moral Evangelical Christian and prominent anti-slavery campaigner.”

Determined to shield young Ada from any expression of her father’s dangerous “poetical” influence, her mother instructed the young girl’s nurse:

Be most careful always to speak the truth to her … take care not to tell her any nonsensical stories that will put fancies into her head.

She wasn’t spared the Victorian era’s brutal control mechanisms of women’s minds and bodies. Padua footnotes:

Ada’s upbringing was strict and lonely. She was given lessons while lying on a “reclining board” to perfect her posture. If she fidgeted, even with her fingers, her hands were tied in black bags and she was shut in a closet. She was five years old.

But the best control strategy for the disorderly tendencies of the poetical mind, it was determined, was thorough immersion in mathematics — which worked, but only to a degree.

Lovelace was eventually introduced to Babbage by the great Scottish mathematician, science writer, and polymath Mary Somerville — for whom, incidentally, the word “scientist” was coined.

And so one of history’s most paradigm-shifting encounters took place.

Implicit to the story is also a reminder that genius is as much the product of an individual’s exceptional nature as it is of the culture in which that individual is nourished. Genius leaps from the improbable into the possible — the courage of the leap is the function of individual temperament, but the horizons of possibility are to a large extent determined by the culture and the era.

Lovelace lived in an age when it was not only uncommon but even discouraged for women to engage in science, let alone authoring scientific paper themselves. In another illuminating footnote, Padua quotes from Babbage’s autobiography, capturing Lovelace’s dance with this duality of possibility and limitation perfectly:

The late Countess of Lovelace informed me that she had translated the memoir of Menabrea. I asked why she had not herself written an original paper on a subject with which she was so intimately acquainted? To this Lady Lovelace replied that the thought had not occurred to her.

And yet groundbreaking thoughts that hadn’t occurred to others did occur to Lovelace.

So immersed was Lovelace in her computational poetics that her contemporaries described her as rather “poetical in her appearance,” which, for those unversed in Victorian euphemism, Padua translates to mean “depressed-looking and extremely badly dressed.” Her mind operated on a level so far beyond the ordinary as to be barely graspable by common imaginations. Padua explains in another footnote:

In an age before the mathematization of logic (Boole’s Foundational laws of Thought was still ten years away) this was a truly extraordinary leap of imagination — it is difficult, maybe, for us in our computerized age to grasp how extraordinary. Babbage had not thought beyond calculating numbers with his machine, but he loved what he called “admirable and philosophic view of the Analytical Engine” — “The more I read your Notes the more surprised I am at them and regret not having earlier explored so rich a vein of the noblest metal.”

Lovelace herself spoke to that fruitful cross-fertilization of the poetic, the philosophical, and the scientific in her famous proclamation in a letter to her mother penned shortly before her footnote masterwork:

You will not concede me philosophical poetry. Invert the order! Will you give me poetical philosophy, poetical science?

In the remainder of The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, layered and wonderful in its totality, Padua goes on to chronicles the power-duo’s tragicomic demo of the Analytical Engine for Queen Victoria, explores how their different temperaments mapped onto the complementary archetypes of the inventor and the entrepreneur — Babbage was the obsessive and perfectionistic tinkerer, Lovelace the one with the fail-forward startup spirit — and delivers a thoroughly unsynthesizable range of enchantment and elucidation. Complement it with Lovelace’s spirited letter on science and religion, then revisit these lovely illustrated biographies of great minds.

Thanks, Michelle

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28 NOVEMBER, 2012

When Babbage and Dickens Waged a War on Noise


How the father of the computer enlisted the greatest Victorian novelist in ridding the streets of sound.

“Sound imposes a narrative on you,” wrote George Prochnik about the cultural evolution of silence, “and it’s always someone else’s narrative.” Indeed, the public-private negotiations of sound date much further back than iPod earbuds and boomboxes. From Discord: The Story of Noise (public library) — which gave us the counterintuitive story of the silent Big Bang — comes the fascinating tale of the first organized war on noise, championed by none other than computing pioneer Charles Babbage, who took it upon himself to purge London of its populous street musicians, known to use their noise as an extortion tactic by playing loudly outside fancy establishments until they were paid to leave. In 1864, Babbage published Chapter on Street Nuisances which, together with Street Music in the Metropolis released by Derby MP Michael Bass the same year, became a seminal manifesto for silence as a civic right.

Italian street musicians in London, 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith

Sound scholar Mike Goldsmith writes:

Babbage in particular did everything he could to oppose the noises of the streets, using his considerable resources of intelligence, political contacts, and obstinacy. History has on the whole not been kind to him. He is remembered with respect as the originator of the computer, but most of his other work has been either neglected or ridiculed. Certainly, Babbage was an eccentric in many ways, an dan obsessive man too.


Babbage attacked noise on many fronts, making numerous court appearances and, like any good naturalist, collecting data to support his case, including his detailed list of 165 interruptions that he suffered over 80 days and his estimate that noise had reduced his working output by a quarter.

Babbage’s efforts might have been more successful had he not insisted in characterizing the battle against noise as the battle of the ‘intellectual worker’ against ‘those whose minds are entirely unoccupied.’ He included in his pamphlet a list of ‘Encouragers of Street Music':

tavern-keepers, public houses, gin-shops, beer-shops, coffee-shops, servants, children, visitors from the country, and, finally and occasionally, ladies of doubtful virtue…

And he also lists ‘Instruments of torture permitted by the government to be in daily and nightly use in the streets of London,’ comprising

organs, bass bands, fiddles, harps, harpsichord, hurdy-gurdies, flageolets, drums, bagpipes, accordions, halfpenny whistles, tom-toms trumpets, and, the human voice, shouting out objects for sale.

Charles Babbage

But his efforts fell on deaf ears — or, worse yet, inspired retaliation ranging from the petty to the staunchly spiteful:

Babbage’s confrontational tactics regarding local noise-makers and in particular his numerous letters to The Times met with equally devastating responses from his targets: his neighbors hired musicians to play outside his windows, sometimes using damaged wind instruments to add to the annoyance. Another neighbor blew a tin whistle from the window facing Babbage’s house for half an hour every day for several months. A brass band played outside his house for five hours. And, when Babbage left his house,

the crowd of young children, urged on by their parents, and backed at a judicious distance by a set of vagabonds, forms quite a noisy mob, following me as I pass along, and shouting out rather uncomplimentary epithets. When I turn around and survey my illustrious tail it stops .. the instant I turn, the shouting and the abuse are resumed, and the mob again follow at a respectful distance … In one case there were certainly above a hundred persons, consisting o f men, women, and boys, with multitudes of young children who followed me through the streets before I could find a policeman.

Still, Babbage persevered, enlisting the help of notable writers and artists in testifying to his mission. He even got Charles Dickens to contribute to the book:

Dickens writes that he and his cosignatories ‘are daily interrupted, harassed, worried, wearied, driven nearly mad, by street musicians.’ Writing of ‘brazen performers on brazen instruments,’ he adds: ‘No sooner does it become known to the producers of horrible sounds that any of your correspondents have particular need of quiet in their own houses, than the said houses are beleaguered by discordant hosts seeking to be bought off.’

Ultimately, Babbage had his way — sort of:

The publications of Babbage and Bass won the day. Later in the same year that they appeared, Bass’s Act passed into law. It was the beginning of the end for street musicians, though that end was slow in coming — so slow that, when Babbage was on his deathbed, an organ grinder played outside.

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