Monday, August 2, 2010

GUEST POST: Ada Lovelace -- Countess of Steampunk?

Patty Blount is a New York City-based technical writer by day. She blogs about her novel "Send" at To Tell a Compelling Story ... and on technical-writing matters at Write Trends. Patty is on Twitter in two places -- @PattyBlount for her fiction and @PattyBlount2 for her technical writing work. A Kindle edition of her novel "Postpartum Deception" is available on Amazon.

When Matt and I first discussed a possible guest blog post, I was stumped for ideas. After all, I’ve only just learned about Steampunk and what I know of the genre, Matt taught me. So, Matt suggested I tap into my roots as a technical writer and write a profile of Augusta Ada Byron King, The Countess of Lovelace. I rubbed my hands together and squealed in glee. I already knew history claims this daughter of poet Lord Byron as the world’s first computer programmer, so as computer software writer myself, writing her profile appealed to me on both a professional and a personal level. But as I immersed myself in research, I realized Ada’s achievements epitomize Steampunk itself.

Steampunk, as Matt defines it, is a genre in which contemporary technology (real or imagined) is set in Victorian England, the age in which steam powered an Industrial Revolution. Melding historical stories with science fiction elements, Steampunk stories feature futuristic technology housed in ornate brass and glass fixtures. Think of The Prestige, in which Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale vie for a Tesla-coil to pull off the ultimate magic act – the Vanishing Man. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is another popular example of the genre.

In 19th century England, Augusta Ada King’s love of mathematics and abundant intelligence were qualities appreciated only so far as they were capable of ensnaring a husband. She did marry and later become the Countess of Lovelace, which should have been the end of our story for a lady of that time. But Ada’s interest in math was too strong to ignore. She eventually met and worked with Charles Babbage, a man credited with designing the first programmable computer. Babbage, frustrated by the sheer quantity of errors found in manually generated mathematical tables, designed his Analytical Engine saying, “I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam.” Of course, such calculations would have taken several minutes to perform with his design, which would have weighed over three tons, had it ever been built.

A little thing like the device’s existence did not stop Ada from extending Babbage’s work. Computer historians claim Babbage’s design would have worked and been what today we call Turing-complete, an expression that means in its simplest terms that the device could be programmed to solve any problem. To accomplish this programming, Babbage adapted the concept of punch cards from the Jacquard Loom. Ada is credited with writing the first computer program for Babbage’s engine, an algorithm that could generate Bernoulli numbers. (Don’t ask!)

Historians debate the veracity of this claim. Most believe Ada did no more than transcribe Babbage’s own program while others insist the punch cards bear proof of Ada’s analyses. Which claim is right no longer interests me because I credit Ada with documenting the world’s first computer program. That’s right. Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, wrote the first software user guide. I like imagining it written on aged parchment and bound between heavy leather covers trimmed in brass. That she did so in an age when women were expected to do no more than host successful dinner parties is eye-brow raising. That she that nearly a hundred years before the design was built is downright jaw-dropping.


Gary Corby said...


Babbage's two engines are now in the Science Museum in London, sadly tucked away in a corner. Unfortunately the science museum has gone all politically correct, and hides real science and technology so as to make way for popular fads.

Ada's program for Bernoulli numbers was tested on a simulator years ago and was found to have bugs, but nothing outside the normal run of bugs you get with any program that's never been executed.

You have to look close, but the hologram on boxes of Microsoft software is a picture of Ada Lovelace.

Patty Blount said...

No kidding!? I have to look at a Microsoft box now to see for myself.

Thanks for the comment,Gary.