Ada Lovelace

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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

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