Babbage & Lovelace: the Victorian Computer Wizard and the Enchantress of Numbers
Chapter 1: The Great Meeting of Minds
What began as the cold, rainy winter of 1833 gave way to a warm and glorious spring and with it the opening of the London Season. Traditionally beginning after Easter and coinciding more or less with the opening of parliament, it extended through the summer. The Season was the height of the English social calendar. All of the finest families left their country estates and flocked to the city for a seemingly endless array of concerts, balls, sporting events and assorted soirees. However, underlying this façade of frivolity was a deadly serious purpose upon which rested the foundation of upper crust society. This was when young, eligible women, having reached the age of seventeen or eighteen, were formally presented to Court, marking their entrance into adulthood and what was frequently described as the largest marriage market in history.
Young ladies, constantly under the watchful eyes of their chaperones, had only a season or two, three at most, to attract the attention of a suitable husband from a respectable family. Longer than that and they might as well be old maids. With that in mind, they were expected to attend as many as “50 balls, 60 parties, 30 dinners and 25 breakfasts” over the course of the two or three month period in pursuit of a prospective mate. All this, of course, had to be done within the adamantine restraints of proper etiquette. That was the atmosphere into which young Ada Byron was thrust, with a mixture of excitement and dread.
Ada was the only legitimate daughter of the notorious Lord Byron. At seventeen, she was young, beautiful and wealthy, but the scandal of her parent’s divorce limited her prospects. Her mother, the Lady Annabelle Byron, had tirelessly worked for years to control the rebellious child. She had forbidden Ada from seeing or writing to her father or even reading his works. She had even gone so far as to prevent Ada from seeing pictures of her world famous sire. This was all a concerted effort on the part of Lady Byron to expunge any taint of her ex-husband. In spite of these efforts, Ada developed into a young woman of fierce intellect and consuming passions, every bit the heir to her mad, bad and dangerous to know father.
When confronted with the prospect of marriage, Ada put her considerable intellectual talents to work analyzing the task before her. On the one hand, marriage offered her a chance to be seen as an adult, to leave behind the anonymous role of child and at long last enjoy the rights and privileges so long denied her. It was the opportunity she had longed for, to be able to meet and converse openly with her intellectual peers, to make a name for herself as more than simply the infamous poet’s daughter. More importantly, it was a chance to finally escape the controlling clutches of her mother. On the other hand, Ada knew that any freedom marriage offered would only extend as far as the rigid boundaries of her ascribed role as wife and mother. All of this was weighing heavily upon Ada on the evening she met the queen.
On the appointed evening, May 10, Ada traveled by coach to St. James Palace, one of London’s oldest palaces. It was originally commissioned by Henry VIII, and was the setting for all the most important of royal events. Ada was dressed for the occasion in an elegant custom made gown of white satin and tulle, and adorned with the feathered head dress, considered de rigueur for a young lady’s presentation at court. That year, there seemed to be an unusually high volume of marriageable debutants, and she and the others were ushered into the reception hall. There, they were forced to wait in the sweltering confines of the hall until Queen Adelaide, wife of King William IV, was ready to receive them.
Anticipation and apprehension ran high, as this was considered one of the most important events in a young lady’s life, restricted exclusively to members of the peerage and daughters of clergymen, military or naval officers, and members of the “aristocratic professions,” such as physician, barrister or banker. The only one possibly more nervous than Ada that evening was her mother. What if the girl fainted or panicked and ran from the room, Lady Byron wondered. Worse still, what if Ada were indiscrete enough to blurt out something that would remind those present of her scandalous father? Everything rested upon that one moment.
When at last it arrived, and Ada was escorted into the main hall to be formally introduced to the Queen, she conducted herself admirably. When the necessarily brief introduction was done, Ada and the others were allowed to mingle with the rest of those in attendance. Over much needed refreshments, she met the Duke of Wellington and Duchess of Leeds. Across the crowded hall, she could also catch glimpses of two princes visiting from the Continent, the Duke or Orleans and the Duke of Brunswick, as well as the controversial Tallyrand, whom Ada impudently described later as an “old monkey.” She also had the opportunity to meet the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, a distant relative.
Having survived the evening, the matrimonial hunt could begin in earnest. What followed was a whirlwind of public and private events carefully choreographed by Ada’s mother to maximize her marriage potential. Ada attended piano concerts by Mendelssohn, lectures by Michael Faraday at the Royal Society and her first opera, a performance of Anna Bolena. By June, Ada was exhausted, Her notoriety as Byron’s daughter, as well as her own beauty and charm, had netted her a great deal of attention, but no proposals were forthcoming. Nevertheless, Lady Byron secured for herself and Ada the most coveted prize of London society, an invitation to attend one of the fashionable parties held by the renowned scientific polymath and eligible widower, Charles Babbage.
Babbage, like Ada’s father, was a Cambridge man, and while he lacked the notoriety of Byron, he had made quite a name for himself in British social and scientific circles. While still at university, he earned a reputation as an iconoclast for openly rebelling against some of the schools more hidebound academic traditions. By the time he graduated in 1814, he had already published a handful of influential mathematical papers, and he became a member of the prestigious Royal Society at the age of 25. Within the span of a few years, he would have an instrumental hand in the founding of the Analytical Society, the Astronomical Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1828, the Cambridge University that had once considered Charles Babbage to be a troublesome and disruptive influence, bestowed upon him the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics, a position once held by the legendary Isaac Newton himself.
Babbage’s conquests were not limited to the worlds of science and math. He was also a gifted raconteur, whose quick wit and disposition towards unconventional views made him one of the most sought after dinner guests in England. Over the years, he had also cultivated relationships with some of the most influential people of the time. He counted among his closest friends the noted astronomer John Herschel, whose father, Sir William Herschel, had discovered the planet Uranus; George Peacock, who went on to become one of the leading mathematicians in England; Richard Jones, considered one of the father’s of economics; and William Whewell, who, the very season that Ada Byron made her debut, coined a new term to describe the individuals who made science their life’s work. He combined the word “science” with the word “artist” and called them “scientists.”
A few years after the tragic death of his beloved wife, Georgiana, Babbage and his daughter, named Georgiana for her mother, began hosting parties at their home on Dorset Street. What began as a modest Saturday night affair soon blossomed into one of the premier events for British society. On any given Saturday, upwards of 200 guests would arrive at the Babbage’s townhouse for an evening of mingling and intellectual intercourse with the brightest stars of the London glitterati. The famous Charles Dickens was a frequent guest, as was Mary Somerville, widely considered to be the grande dame of British science. Charles Lyell, whose book, Principals of Geology, had shocked so many by contending that the Earth was much older than biblical accounts, often attended, accompanied by his young protégé, Charles Darwin. At these events writers conversed with aristocrats, industrialists acquainted themselves with artists, politicians rubbed shoulders with actors and actresses, all in an atmosphere of elegant conviviality, while enjoying music, dance and demonstrations of the latest scientific discoveries. It was just such a demonstration that Ada and her mother were invited to. Babbage had promised to present his most ingenious creation to date, a thinking machine.
On the evening of July 6th, Ada Lovelace, accompanied by Lady Byron, arrived at the Dorset Street townhome of Mr. Babbage. They were, of course, fashionably late, getting there some time after 9:00. Babbage and his daughter were greeting the guests, and, after exchanging pleasantries, he invited them inside. As Ada drifted through the well appointed home and entered the main room, she engaged in polite conversation with gentlemen in fashionable swallow tailed jackets and ladies in ball gowns of organdy and brocade. A smaller room had been set aside for some of the older guests to play card games like whist, loo or vingt-et-un. Another room held tables lavishly set with refreshments of smoked salmon, oysters, finger sandwiches and various croquets and salads. Another table held a large crystal punch bowl, as well as cakes, cookies, tarts, nuts and fresh and dried fruit. It had been an unusually warm summer and even though off the shoulder dresses were all the rage that spring, Ada and the other ladies quickly became overheated in their corsets and long gloves. Fortunately servants circulated among the guests offering glasses of Madera or flavored ices.
Eventually, Babbage invited them into one of the drawing rooms for the main event. Once inside, Ada and the others saw, displayed prominently upon one of the tables, a mechanical wonder of science and engineering. Babbage called it his “Difference Engine,” for the mathematical technique it used to perform its calculations. The engine stood two and a half feet high, by two feet wide and two feet deep, and sat upon a polished wooden base. Constructed of bronze and steel, it featured three columns, each with six engraved figure wheels, connected to a complex network of gears and levers. Although this was only a small prototype of the full machine Babbage had in the works, it represented the single most complex bit of precision engineering the world had seen to date.
Once Babbage had quieted the group and focused their attention, he began to explain his machine and its fantastic potential. Shortly, he began to prove his point by turning the machine’s hand crank, its sole supply of power. The device’s myriad brass and steel gears began to spin and gleam in the reflected light of the newly fashionable gas fixtures. Before the assembled crowd, as the clicking and clacking of metal upon metal reached a furious pace, the device began to perform calculations faster and with greater accuracy than any human being possibly could. The audience was fascinated. They could scarcely believe their eyes. True, this was the age that had been dubbed the Industrial Revolution, and all of them had witnessed technological wonders become reality in just a few short decade, but this, a machine capable of doing the work of the human mind was something altogether new.
When the demonstration was complete, the crowd applauded and congratulated Babbage upon his accomplishment. However, as they returned to the rest of the party and turned their attention once more to their fellow partiers, much of their enthusiasm seemed to fade. In conversations among themselves, most concluded the wondrous automation, although quite impressive, was simply an amusing plaything with no practical applications. Not so Ada.
Almost immediately she grasped the revolutionary significance of such a machine and spent many hours that night asking Mr. Babbage about its inner workings. Babbage, for his part, was flattered by the attention of such a curious and intellectually gifted young woman. Within a few weeks, he was helping her obtain the finest mathematical tutors so that she might fully appreciate the elegance of the engine’s design. What started over pleasant party conversation, grew into a lifelong friendship and one of the most fascinating and complex partnerships in the history of science.