“The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform.”–Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace
Augusta Ada Byron (she was the poet’s only legitimate child) was born a little over two-hundred-six years ago, on December 10, 1815. She was a few weeks shy of her thirty-seventh birthday when she died on November 27, 1852.
On June 5, 1833, the then seventeen-year-old Ada met forty-one-year-old Charles Babbage, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University (a prestigious appointment later held by one Stephen Hawking). Ada and Charles subsequently went their separate ways, she married and had children, but she never lost her love for, or stopped studying, mathematics. Although she thought about her one-time mentor every now and then, and about the huge mechanical “Difference Engine” he’d built to perform and tabulate mathematical functions, she did not come into his life again in a substantive way until 1842 when she was asked by a mutual friend, Charles Wheatstone, to translate an article written in Italian and describing a talk that Babbage had given in Turin the previous year. She was twenty-five at the time.
At that same time, Babbage was on a whirlwind tour of Europe, trying to drum up the money to build his next-generation “Analytical Engine,” as he’d been repeatedly disappointed at the lukewarm and miserly reception to his fundraising efforts in his native England. Babbage envisioned a steam-powered unit, into which instructions were fed by a series of punched cards (an idea he stole from the French weavers and their Jacquard looms, another interesting story in its own right). A memory store in the Analytical Engine would be capable of holding a thousand or so numbers, and the output resulting from its machinations would be sent straight to a printer.
Although parts of the Analytical Engine were built during his lifetime, it was never completed. But Babbage produced meticulous drawings, descriptions, and explanations of his proposed Engine, and plans to build one continue to this day. There’s an enormous amount of information available on the web and in print about it, and there’s a fascinating series of articles, and a program emulator, on Fourmilab, the site run by AutoDesk co-founder and former Ricochet member John Walker.
Ada’s reputation rests largely on a series of her own notes which she appended to the article she translated in 1842. Babbage was impressed with her translation and suggested that she add her own thoughts following it. In them, she suggests that computers would, one day, be fully programmable and that they would be able to compose music, create graphics, and become useful in commerce and business. She describes the Engine as “weav[ing] algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves,” and says that the programs one day might act on other things besides numbers:
“Supposing that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”
She details now familiar programming techniques such as branching and looping, and how the punch cards containing the instructions for the computer to follow and execute would work. (As some might deem typical of the fair sex, her notes are three times as long as is the article she translated, and on which she was commenting.)
She wound up her musings with “Note G,” a discussion of how the Analytical Engine and a series of punched cards could be used to calculate Bernoulli numbers. Though this is often described as “the world’s first computer program,” and Lady Ada as “the first computer programmer,” it’s actually more of an explanatory trace of the steps that the machine would have to make to calculate the numbers. Just as notable an achievement, though.
Ada Lovelace was thirty-six when she died in 1852, from what was probably a combination of uterine cancer and the treatment for such a condition at the time. Her last years were dissolute and given over to gambling and affairs, and her husband abandoned her shortly before she died. At her request, she was buried next to her father at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. A sad end for an unusual, and very bright lady, one who broke the mold and did her bit to change the world.
But, But, BUT! I hear you exclaiming. What does any of this have to do with today, January 22, 2022?
Lady Ada’s father, George Gordon, Lord Byron, was born two-hundred-thirty-four years ago today, on January 22, 1788. I dispute his oft-held position as the most romantic of the Romantic poets, having written before:
The popular myth is that George Gordon, Lord Byron, was the most “Romantic” of the Romantic poets. I beg to differ. Byron was thirty-six when he died of a fever while attempting to command a Greek rebel army (with absolutely no military experience at all) attacking the fortress of Lepanto in 1824….Not Romantic at all. And rather stupid to boot.
I contend that, no matter how you may feel about his poetry (I’m indifferent to most of it, charmed by some of it, and annoyed by a fair amount of it), George’s greatest contribution to the world was his daughter. An achievement that any man of sense would have clung to, and been proud of–a legacy for, and into, the ages. One which, to be perfectly frank, eclipses his own–not insubstantial one–many times over.
I’m not sure if George–supremely narcissistic and intent on escaping his own demons and chasing his own dreams to the end–ever spared a thought for his daughter, among his incestuous affair with his half-sister and his never-ending series of sexual indiscretions with actresses, the early-nineteenth century’s version of the “glitterati,” and other bought-and-paid-for women of questionable virtue.** Eventually, his wife left him, amid scandals and revelations of Byron’s squalid and sordid lifestyle that resulted in his fleeing England forever and holing up on the other side of the world living out every adolescent boy’s sybaritic fantasies and playing at often-deadly heroics, the last of which claimed his own life.
Sad, to willfully and selfishly abandon such a treasure. Perhaps, had he not, had he at least attempted some responsible presence in his daughter’s life, some sort of actual “heart open present always” (Bwahahaha) function for her, Ada’s own unhappy personal life would have turned out differently. Still, it is what it is.
She named her sons after her father. And, before she died, she made it known that she wanted to be buried next to him. And so she was.
My favorite poem, by George Gordon, Lord Byron? This one:
When we two parted
In silence and tears,
To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold,
Colder thy kiss;
Truly that hour foretold
Sorrow to this.
The dew of the morning
Sunk chill on my brow—
It felt like the warning
Of what I feel now.
Thy vows are all broken,
And light is thy fame;
I hear thy name spoken,
And share in its shame.
They name thee before me,
A knell to mine ear;
A shudder comes o’er me—
Why wert thou so dear?
They know not I knew thee,
Who knew thee too well—
Long, long shall I rue thee,
Too deeply to tell.
In secret we met—
In silence I grieve,
That thy heart could forget,
Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
After long years,
How should I greet thee?—
With silence and tears.
He might have been a bastard. But he was not an unperceptive one.
I am such a strange mélange of good and evil that it would be difficult to describe me–George Gordon, Lord Byron
This–the idea that they’re so supremely unique and inexplicable that thick-headed plodders such as myself cannot possibly identify them and delineate not only their occasional well-hidden virtues (Byron really loved his dog), but also their manifest and obvious faults–is a mistake that narcissists often make, when talking about themselves.
Actually, it’s not difficult at all.
**Byron’s most famous dalliance was with Lady Caroline Lamb, wife of The Hon. William Lamb who, after her death, eventually became the Prime Minister of Great Britain. In “Caro,” Byron met a woman to match his own sense of self-absorption, sexual licentiousness, and neuroticism, and their affair, and the dramatic fallout from it certainly is a story for the ages.
Lady Caroline is best known for her bon mot–although it’s not all that well-sourced–that Byron was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” I regard it–because if she didn’t say it, she should have–as just another example of the projection that is so rife among the self-involved, because I expect she wished it was true of herself, too.
Unfortunately, the two of them simply serve as negative examples of the sort of sad and dull people who spent too much time writing, and then reading, their own press releases, and then trying to convince the rest of the world that they live lives of incomparable wealth, sexual boldness, excitement, and fascination. When–really–they’re just lusterless, lonely, and miserable.
Twenty-first century examples of the same abound, every time you turn on “Reality TV.”
There is nothing new under the sun.