Was Ada Really the First Programmer?

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In the notes, which ended up being three times longer than the original Menabrea paper, Ada outlined how the Analytical Engine might have worked had it ever been built. She explained how the Bernoulli numbers, a complex numerical system first described by 18th century Swiss mathematician Jakob Bernoulli, might be broken down into simple formulas that could be coded as instructions for the machine. Perhaps more importantly, her poetic prowess endowed Babbage's dry technical details with grandeur. The Analytical Engine, she wrote, "weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves." She also envisioned that, given the right algorithms, the machine might be able to compose music and graphics.

However, scholars disagree on the extent to which the notes represent Ada's original thoughts.

"It is doubtful whether Ada herself "originated" any of the ideas contained in her notes, except perhaps some of the more exuberantly speculative ones," Holt argues. He says Babbage supplied most of the tables and indexes for the notes, and, because of her poor math skills, ended up finishing most of the equations for her. (Babbage claimed as much in an autobiography written 20 years after Ada's death.)


So why did Babbage let her take the credit in the first place? According to Woolley, Babbage was hoping that Ada's celebrity status would win him funding.

"It would be like nominating Lisa Marie Presley to annotate a study of quantum computation," Woolley writes.

But according to Toole, this characterization is "pure hogwash." Toole says Babbage's correspondence with Ada reveals that he gave her very little help. In fact, Toole argues, it was Ada who suggested programming the Bernoulli numbers -- a claim Holt and Woolley both support -- and using indexes, much like those used in modern computers.

Babbage scholar Allan Bromley, of the University of Sydney, is more circumspect in his assessment of Ada's role. Bromley was too ill to participate in an interview with TechTV, but in 1999 he told Salon, "All of her programs cited in her notes had been prepared by Babbage three to seven years earlier."

Paul Ceruzzi, a computer historian with the National Air and Space Museum, is also reluctant to give Ada the title of "first computer programmer," but notes that her contributions were nonetheless invaluable to the field.

"She had a better sense than Babbage did of the need to keep programming separate from the machine," Ceruzzi told TechTV. This, he says, was a "tremendous insight" that even many of the most brilliant minds in computer science failed to see as late as the 1950s.

Moreover, he notes, while Babbage was "a failure at articulating his vision," Ada's flair for words helped sell the exotic notion of a computer to a skeptical world.

"I think she really deserves a place in computing history," Ceruzzi says.

The real problem with Ada, Ceruzzi and Toole both suggest, may lie in our culture's need to take a complex personality from the 19th century and whittle her down into an archetypal icon for the technology age.

"If you credit her with more than she did," Ceruzzi says, "it really kind of backfires."

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