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Poet's daughter was first programmer… NOT

Biography of Lord Byron's daughter makes interesting claims

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A new biography of Ada (an abbreviation of Augusta), Countess of Lovelace, by Benjamin Woolley will perpetuate the myth that she was the world's first programmer. There are several problems with this, principally that Charles Babbage himself fulfilled that role, and that he was most notably assisted by his son Herschel, and possibly his two younger sons as well. Ada Lovelace's role was essentially to review some of Babbage's earlier work. Ada was the daughter of Byron, but did not know him as her mother was separated from him five weeks after her birth. She is described as a mathematician, but her mathematical accomplishment was minimal. In 1843 she translated from French a paper by the Italian General Meabrea (later prime minister of Italy), who had heard Babbage lecture in Turin on plans for his analytical engine a couple of years earlier. When she showed the paper to Babbage, he suggested she added her own notes, which she did, copiously - but they are rambling screeds of limited value. It's a matter of definition as to whether Babbage's engine could be programmed in any modern sense of the term. It appears that Ada suggested to Babbage that the machine be used for calculating Bernoulli numbers. Ada characterised Pascal's machine as a calculator, and of little use, while Babbage's engine was the real thing - except that it never worked in his lifetime and was only completed a few years ago. It is in the Science Museum in South Kensington, although friends of ex-MS head of research Nathan Myhrvold will be able to see his in due course, since he bought one at the museum shop. Woolley shows that Ada was a considerable flirt, a gambler unable to win despite her application of mathematics to the subject, and somewhat addicted to opium. So awful was Ada's writing that Woolley has had to paraphrase it. She died when she was 36, at the same age as her father, and also from cancer. Her modern incarnation is the Ada language, named after her, and developed by the US Department of Defense in 1979. ®

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