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Ada Lovelace: What did the first computer program do?

Celebrated on what would be her 197th birthday, Ada Lovelace is widely credited as having written the first computer program. What did Lovelace's program do? 

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The Analytical Engine was a lifelong passion for Babbage; he tinkered with designs until the end of his life, in 1871. But it took a young mathematician with a storied family history to grasp the full potential of Babbage's machine.

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Lord Byron never knew Ada. He abandoned her and her mother, Annabella Milbanke, when his daughter was only a few months old, and he died when she was eight. Annabella, intent on discovering traces of Byron's volatile personality in his offspring, subjected Ada to intensive schooling in science and mathematics from a young age.

Ada showed remarkable talent in math, and by the time she was seventeen she was introduced to Charles Babbage, who called her "The Enchantress of Numbers."

Ada, who in 1838 became the Countess of Lovelace corresponded with Babbage about his Difference and Analytical engines, and, in 1842 and 1843, she translated an essay about the Analytical Engine by the Italian statesman and mathematician Luigi Menabrea.

Lovelace's notes on Menabrea's essay, which attempt to explain what the Analytical Engine is and why it is important, are longer than the actual essay itself. Note G describes, in very detailed steps, how one could use punch cards to make Babbage's engine calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers. Historians of science regard Note G as containing the very first computer program, making Lovelace the first programmer. 

But equally important was Lovelace's recognition of what the Analytical Engine really was: not a mere steampunk abacus, but a device that can process data of any kind, and perhaps even reason. She wrote:

The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths. Its province is to assist us in making available what we are already acquainted with. This it is calculated to effect primarily and chiefly of course, through its executive faculties; but it is likely to exert an indirect and reciprocal influence on science itself in another manner. For, in so distributing and combining the truths and the formulæ of analysis, that they may become most easily and rapidly amenable to the mechanical combinations of the engine, the relations and the nature of many subjects in that science are necessarily thrown into new lights, and more profoundly investigated. This is a decidedly indirect, and a somewhat speculative, consequence of such an invention. It is however pretty evident, on general principles, that in devising for mathematical truths a new form in which to record and throw themselves out for actual use, views are likely to be induced, which should again react on the more theoretical phase of the subject. There are in all extensions of human power, or additions to human knowledge, various collateral influences, besides the main and primary object attained.


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