by Conrad Shawcross
I first came across Ada Lovelace in 1999, when
I was a student and read a book called Zeros and Ones by Sadie Plant – a very rich, poetic take on the life of this extraordinary figure and her collaboration with the inventor Charles Babbage. It opens with a scene that is imbedded in my psyche: in 1833, a young girl came across a machine that would change her life and the world for ever. That machine was the Difference Engine. Since then I have returned to her time and time again – her life and work are a constant source of inspiration.
Lovelace is a controversial figure – historically, socially, conceptually, mathematically. While Babbage saw his machine as a calculator, she glimpsed that it could do more than simply crunch numbers, and in one set of notes she speculates on the possibility of the machine being capable of producing music. Computer historian Doron Swade sums this up very succinctly: because