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Frankenstein, symbolic logic, and student-centered research at RIT

September 11, 2015

babbage and lovelaceOccasionally, I read a really great book that is worth sharing and I’m pleased to share Walter Isaacson’s book “The Innovators: How a group of hackers, geniuses, and geeks created the digital revolution”. It is about those people who created the computer and the Internet and how innovation occurred, bringing about one of the most important revolutions in our lives. 

While the entire book is fascinating, I was particularly struck by the story of Augusta Ada King or later Lady Ada Lovelace, who in a nutshell, was the inventor of computer programming.

Born in 1815 to Ana Isabella Noel and Lord Byron (yes, that Lord Byron of Don Juan fame), Ada had a delightful background that bred a deep appreciation of the arts, mathematics, symbolic logic, and computing. Ada’s mother was a mathematician and Lord Byron was a poet from the romantic period. But Lord Byron was also well-known for his infidelity and was soon separated from Ada and her mother. This plays quite an important role in Ada’s perspective.

[Sidenote: Lord Byron was a luddite and protested in the English Parliament against the automatic looms that were putting weavers out of business at the time. Later the ‘punch card’ technology, part of the automatic looms at the time, would become an important innovation in the computing field.]

Wanting to make sure her path would be different from her father’s passion-laden one, she threw herself into her studies: “'I must cease to think of living for pleasure or self-gratification,” she wrote her new tutor. “I find that nothing but very close and intense application to subjects of a scientific nature now seems to keep my imagination from running wild … It appears to me that the first thing to go through is a course of Mathematics.” (Ouch!) By the way, Ada’s mathematics tutor was August de Morgan, a pioneer of symbolic logic (remember de Morgan’s law from set theory?)

Because of all this, Ada eventually connected with Charles Babbage, the inventor of the calculating ‘difference engine’. Realizing that more than just calculating could be done with machines, Babbage became fixated with his next invention - the analytic engine - a machine that could be programmed to do different tasks. Ada, with her interdisciplinary perspective of mathematics, logic, art, and technology, became enthralled with the analytic engine and soon Babbage became Ada’s mentor. 

Ada was asked to translate some of Babbage’s lecture notes from Italian to English and Babbage also encouraged her to include some of her original thoughts as notes at the end. This was, as you can imagine, extremely rare in those days for a woman to be contributing to a scientific paper but it was these notes that would make her famous. And what I like about this story is that when you think about it, Ada was essentially an undergraduate researcher at the time!

Her notes, officially titled “Notes by the translator”, contained four key results which are directly attributable to Ada and her background:

1.          The Analytic Machine could be programmed to do different tasks (as Babbage had set out to do);

2.          The Analytic Machine (or future ones) could be programmed to do symbolic logic and therefore handle data sets like music and art as well;

3.          The notes contained the first published algorithm, making Ada a pioneer in programming if not a founder of the field;

4.          The Analytic Machine, according to Ada, would never be capable of thinking and therefore could not become the digital ‘Frankenstein’ of the time. Alan Turing dubbed this fact 'Lady Lovelace’s Objection’. 

In the end, it was Ada Lovelace who envisioned the power of computers that we enjoy today and best of all she was an undergraduate researcher, just like the hundreds of RIT students.

Pictured, clockwise from upper left: Ada Lovelace, Walter Isaacson’s “The Innovators” book cover, a replica difference engine, and Charles Babbage.