01 August 1997

Introducing our new diarists: Babbage and Lovelace.

Charles Babbage, the British pioneer of computing, died in 1871. His friend and colleague Ada, Countess of Lovelace, had predeceased him by two decades. They may seem unlikely collaborators: Babbage the Cambridge-educated inventor, ultra-rational scientist, and hater of street musicians; Lovelace the aristocrat, talented mathematician, socialite, gambler, and opium addict. After more than a century, some may have forgotten them entirely. And yet their ideas, too little valued in their own day, are now vindicated by that same passage of time and events.

We see the spirit of Babbage’s work in modern scientific computing. Numerical computing reminds us of the role of his unfinished mechanical computer, the Difference Engine, which he devised as an automatic generator of mathematical tables. The multi-purpose PC recalls its planned descendant, the Analytical Engine, a machine for calculations that would be (in Lovelace's words) "absolutely general".

Ada Lovelace (daughter of Lord Byron, the poet) has often been remembered as a mere chronicler and populariser to Babbage, but recent years have brought recognition. Her image now is the eponymous "Ada, the enchantress of numbers" in Betty Toole's book (Strawberry Press, California, 1992) and the "Queen of Engines" in Gibson and Sterling's 1990 SF novel "The Difference Engine".

Her scheme for calculating Bernoulli numbers on Babbage Engines qualifies as the first computer program, and in 1979 the US Department of Defence gave her name to a programming language. She even predicted the application of the Analytical Engine to music and graphics, 150 years before the multimedia revolution.

Unfortunately brass construction and steam power (not to mention twin millstones of politics and Babbage’s own procrastination) were not equal to her foresight, and the Analytical Engine happened only with the arrival of electronics.

How would Babbage and Lovelace view the fast-changing world of modern computing? Starting in the next issue of SCW, our diarists will take on their roles and examine through their eyes the impact of computing on science. They welcome readers' thoughts on matters related to scientific computing; and are keen to hear, for possible examination in their column, of novel computing solutions to scientific problems.

Babbage and Lovelace welcome responses to their musings, and suggestions for topics that might interest them. Send comments to either of the authors on the home page.