Inside the Collection

The Powerhouse Museum celebrates Ada Lovelace Day

Painting of Ada Lovelace by Margaret Carpenter
Ada Lovelace, 19th century British mathematician (1836). Painting by Margaret Carpenter (1793-1872).

We are delighted to be participating in Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging on 24 March 2010 to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science.

Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, is an intriguing figure. Mary Somerville, one of the very few recognised women mathematicians and scientists of the day, took the 17 year old Ada to London to introduce her to society. Through Mary, Ada met Charles Babbage, a scholar and inventor whose expertise included mathematics, astronomy, meteorology, ophthalmoscopy and linguistics, who showed Ada his working model of the Difference Engine.

Part from Babbage's Difference Engine
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Babbge had designed the Difference Engine to eradicate errors in the calculation of mathematical tables. Calculations of this sort were used to produce charts – such as used in shipping. To this date, errors in mathematical tables resulted in accidents and death – such as in accidents at sea due to mistakes in charts. So there was great practical potential to developing the Difference Engine.

Babbage was impressed to note that Ada understood its complicated operation. From that meeting a 19 year friendship and partnership began.

In 1995 the Powerhouse Museum acquired its specimen piece of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No1 (pictured above). Included in the auction lot were 2 letters addressed to Charles from Ada Lovelace.

Later when the acquisition brought us in to contact with Charles’ descendants in Australia we acquired from them, among other items, a small envelope addressed to Babbage containing the calling card of Countess Lovelace.

Calling card of Countess Lovelace
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Hand written on the back is the mysterious and tantalising “Very Interesting”. We are delighted to have these items in the Museum’s collection, evidence of Charles’ and Ada’s association.

Calling card of Countess Lovelace
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

From today’s perspective the culmination of this partnership is the much repeated writing of the ‘first computer programme’ by Ada in her description of Babbage’s Analytical Engine. The paper, written in 1843, is a translation from the French of a paper on the Analytical Engine written by Italian engineer (and later Italian Prime Minister) Luigi Menabrea. Menabrea had reported a lecture by Babbage on his Analytical Engine in Turin. But Ada’s paper included extensive notes of her own and incorporated a table or plan which shows how to set up the Analytical Engine to generate the numbers of the Bernoulli series. It is this table (a copy pictured below) which is commonly held to be the program.

Table which shows how to set up the Analytical Engine to generate the numbers of the Bernoulli series
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Now it’s questionable that this work constitutes a program. It is also likely that Babbage provided much of this material to Ada, but she still had remarkable understanding of a technology which had no precedent. She also saw possibilities for its application that go beyond Babbage’s conception. She was a remarkable person who contributed to our understanding of the world and who we are.

The first Ada Lovelace Day took place on 24 March 2009. The aim then was for 1000 people to blog about women in science and technology; almost 2000 people took part. This year the organisers hope for 3072 people to blog about women in science and technology. At lunchtime on 23 March 2010 (the day before Ada Lovelace Day), there are pledges for just over half of the 3072 hoped for. If you are interested in encouraging the involvement of women in science and technology, you may wish to pledge to blog on here and help this enterprise in support of women in science and technology.

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