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October-December 2002

Mary Croaken and Nathan Ensmenger, Editors

Ada Byron Lovelace: To Dream Tomorrow (A Film about Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage)

In preparation for creating the one-hour, scholarly, interdisciplinary documentary film Ada Byron Lovelace: To Dream Tomorrow, Jo Francis and I (the directors) examined Ada Byron Lovelace and Charles Babbage's actual manuscripts. We worked over a three-year period with support of eight administrative units from the University of Maryland, College Park. Access to original manuscripts and, where needed, historical physical objects was provided by the British Library, the Bodleian Somerville, and Byron/Lovelace Collections in Oxford, Newstead Abbey, Woking Historical Centre, the Science Museum in London, and (for Scheutz objects) Tekniska Museet in Stockholm. Findings were cross-referenced with outside experts and/or with historical and/or technical authorities interviewed in Ada Byron Lovelace: To Dream Tomorrow, such as the current Earl of Lytton (Ada's descendent), David Herbert, Miranda Seymour, Sadie Plant, Doron Swade, and Michael Lindgren.

While working on Ada Byron Lovelace: To Dream Tomorrow, we tried not to be caught in the acrimony that has persisted over the years since Lady Byron, fearing violence, removed five-week-old Ada from 13 Piccadilly Terrace in January 1816. We hew to the fact that Ada was the biological child of Lord and Lady Byron but was brought up in Lord Byron's absence. Ada was raised in a single mother household where her early and persistent interest in things mechanical and mathematical was systematically encouraged but not at the expense of her abiding interest in the poetical, musical, or imaginative.

Drawing on the insights of family member Lord Lytton, expert on Lady Byron, David Herbert, and the work on women's rights in this period done by Miranda Seymour, we were able to use previously unpublished documents to trace Ada Byron's early education in England and Switzerland. There she developed an affinity for the French and German languages that would prove most useful for her later scientific ideas on the Analytical Engine and on what she presciently called a "calculus of the nervous system."

Although as a woman she had no access to a university education or major research libraries, the meeting of the then 17-year-old Ada Byron with Babbage, the then 41-year-old successor to Newton's chair at Cambridge, and to leading science writer of the day Mary Somerville, provided Ada Byron with encouragement. Ada Byron's viewing of the prototype of Babbage's Difference Engine #1 in 1833 happened to come at the start of two remarkable years of development of the concept of the Analytical Engine. From Lady Byron's diary, we can trace elements of the excitement as Ada borrowed Babbage's engineering drawings to study them and met regularly with Babbage and Somerville as the new ideas involved in the Analytical Engine were hammered out. As Doron Swade notes in his book The Cogwheel Brain (Little Brown and Company, 2000), this began in 1834 and ended in 1836 when the idea of using the punch cards that instructed the Jacquard Loom was taken up.

Having followed the actual creation of the Analytical Engine with Babbage and Somerville, and encouraged by her mother, Ada moved beyond the mathematics capacity of her earlier tutors; expanded her intellectual circle to include Faraday and Wheatstone; and went on despite marriage, illness, and three children to continue her studies with the illustrious London mathematician Augustus de Morgan. From her notes, it is clear her work in mathematics is directed toward better undertsanding of Babbage's designs.

In 1842 Italian engineer Menabrea published in French an account of what Babbage was attempting. Also in 1842, Babbage had a disastrous meeting with British Prime Minister Robert Peel, who declared Babbage's work "worthless." Despite this setback, Lovelace translated Menabrea at Wheatstone's urging, and even made some corrective notes. Only after Lovelace's translation was shown to Babbage did the intensive collaborative work of the summer of 1843 begin. That the work was collaborative with Babbage, at Lovelace's urging, providing additional material on what was after all still only a virtual engine at the time. That Lovelace brimmed over with vision as to where the engine could clearly move beyond mere calculation to become a genuinely universal machine in the modern sense is clear from perusing literally every rapidly scrawled page of the manuscript sources.

Proofs of "the notes" we know were read together. Any errors remaining in the notes (and there were a very few) may be charged to Babbage, Ada, and the printer. Finally, when a dispute as to whether Babbage could add a diatribe against government, every single person involved at the time, including Babbage's closest friends, decided in Ada's favor that she should have the final determination of what should happen to her notes. Once one follows the process, scrupulously checking each step against the contemporaneous materials available in archives, it is clear the genesis of the Analytical Engine itself is primarily the work of Babbage. Similarly, the genesis of the notes as a vision moving beyond the idea of mechanical calculation that Pascal and Leibnitz and Müller had all dreamed before either Lovelace or Babbage, is primarily the work of Augusta Ada Lovelace, whose initials, A.A.L., identified her as author when the notes were published in August 1843.

Having reviewed each step of the process as shown in the manuscripts, Doron Swade states on screen in Ada Byron Lovelace: To Dream Tomorrow:

"Ada saw something that Babbage in some sense failed to see. In Babbage's world his engines were bound by number. He saw that the machines could do algebra in the narrow sense that they could manipulate plus and minus signs. But all his calculating engines, his Difference Engine and his Analytical Engine, which is the programmable general purpose machine, were all bound by number, they manipulated number as a manifestation of quantity. What Lovelace saw was that number could represent entities other than quantity. So once you had a machine for manipulating numbers, if those numbers represented other things, letters, musical notes, then the machine could manipulate symbols of which number was one instance, according to rules. This is a fundamental transition from a machine which is a number cruncher to a machine that manipulates symbols according to rules, that is the transition from calculation to general purpose computation. And looking back from the present high ground of modern computing, if we're looking and sifting history for that transition, then that transtion was made explicitly by Ada in that 1843 paper."

The making of Ada Byron Lovelace: To Dream Tomorrow coincides both with the 150th anniversary of the death of Ada, Countess Lovelace (27 November 1852), and marks Doron Swade's milestone completion in 2002 at London's Science Museum of the printer Babbage designed to work either with the Difference Engine or the Analytical Engine. Both the engine and the printer in all their beauty are seen working in the film.

Information on obtaining cassettes of the documentary for private or institutional use in classroom and/or museum settings can be obtained through the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) at or by writing to Jo Francis or John Fuegi at Flare Productions, 2701 Curry Dr., Adelphi, MD 20783.

John Fuegi
University of Maryland, College Park