Innovation Monitor: Ada Lovelace and the Story of Note G

NYC Media Lab
6 min readMay 7, 2021

Innovation Monitor: Ada Lovelace and the Story of Note G

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Welcome to this week’s Innovation Monitor.

Ada Lovelace’s name has graced sci-fi classics like William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, TV shows like Doctor Who, and (of course) Google Doodles. Her major contribution to computer science has been boiled down for decades as being the world’s first programmer.

While this has been debated ad nauseam (there’s even an academic niche dedicated to this), most accounts seem to gloss over the actual program she wrote, what it did, and why it was so important to computer science.

In this newsletter, we’ll explore Lovelace’s program and why it was so prescient, and along the way learn a bit of history behind Charles Babbage’s two famous machines… and a mad poet.

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Erica Matsumoto The Difference Engine In Two Bit History’s excellent account of Lovelace’s famous program, author Sinclair Target writes that Lovelace’s mother “had decided that a solid grounding in mathematics would ward off the wild, romantic sensibility that possessed [her] father.” We’ll note here that Lovelace’s famous poet father, Lord Byron, was reckless, and managed to accrue £600k in debt, in today’s money, and lived a life replete with drugs and booze.

This balance of academic work in hard sciences and immense creativity perhaps led to Lovelace’s approach to take Babbage’s ideas further than even the inventor could.

Like many innovator’s today, Babbage’s first computing machine design arose from frustration — particularly around the use of large log tables, which often contained errors, as they were calculated by hand.

Babbage designed a Difference Engine — not technically a computer — that could solve this problem without errors. But Babbage never really finished his machine.

After spending grant money equal “to the cost of two large warships,” the inventor found that there was nobody in the early 1800s that could manufacture the necessary parts. (Someone did eventually fund the construction of the Difference Engine… in the 1990s.)

It was around this time — 1833 — that Babbage, 41, met 17-year-old Lovelace (who went by Ada Byron at the time). Lovelace was fascinated by Babbage’s Difference Engine — and understood how it worked — and the two kept in touch. The Analytical Engine Eventually Babbage lost interest in the Difference Engine when he found that he could create a much more powerful machine — the prototypical computer — the Analytical Engine.

“The Analytical Engine could be programmed using punched cards like a Jacquard Loom and could multiply and divide as well as add and subtract. In order to perform one of these operations, a section of the machine called the ‘mill’ would rearrange itself into the appropriate configuration, read the operands off of other columns used for data storage, and then write the result back to another column.”

Understandably, the British government declined to fund the Engine’s construction. Babbage went to Italy for support, convincing Italian engineer and future prime minister Luigi Menabrea to write a paper on the topic. The Italian Engineer & Lovelace’s Note A In his paper, Menabrea explained why the Analytical Engine was far superior than the Difference Engine.

Menabrea provided “programs” — simple examples of what the new Engine would be capable of. Technically, Menabrea’s examples could be called the first computer programs, but there’s a reason we remember Lovelace’s nearly two centuries later.

Lovelace took Menabrea’s paper, translated it into English, and made enough notes to triple its size. Two of these Notes went down in history: Note A and Note G.

In Note A, Lovelace expanded on the promise of the Analytical Engine, and added that its function wasn’t limited to numbers, but any objects “whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations.” That could eventually mean the composition of music — something that Menabrea and Babbage hadn’t even imagined.

Then, there was Note G. Lovelace’s Note G

Let’s jump a few decades into the future. When Paul Allen flew out to Albuquerque to demo BASIC, the interpreter he and Bill Gates had written for the Altair microcomputer, neither had ever tested it on an actual Altair. Instead they used an emulator on Harvard’s system. It worked, and the month after Microsoft was founded.

However — more than a century before the BASIC demo, Lovelace wrote a program in Note G for a theoretical computer. It demonstrated how the Analytical Engine could solve problems much more complex than what Menabrea presented.

But what exactly are we looking at? And why is the instruction set considered a “program”?

In short, Lovelace was trying to calculate the eighth Bernoulli number. Target’s piece does a great job of walking through the concept of Bernoulli numbers, so we highly recommend giving that a read.

Basically, Bernoulli’s formula helped simplify the process of calculating the “sum of the first positive n integers to any given power.” That looks something like this:

Target took the instruction set and translated it into C. If you’re a little bit familiar with programming you’ll be happily surprised to see what’s technically history’s first nested loop in a program.

Lovelace also apparently had a bug in an earlier line: “This may well have been a typesetting error and not an error in the program that Lovelace devised. All the same, this must be the oldest bug in computing.”

We recognize there is some debate around what it means that Lovelace invented the world’s first computer program. Technically, Menabrea’s “programs” were the first for a (theoretical) computer. However, the “longest program that Menabrea presented was 11 operations long and contained no loops or branches; Lovelace’s program contains 25 operations and a nested loop (and thus branching).”

Lovelace saw potential of computers — and computer programs — beyond simple math… and even managed to get a bug in. To us, that’s a fitting definition for the world’s first programmer, and the world’s first program. This Week in the Future

As this series is focused on the history of innovation, we’re reserving this last section to highlight something from the present that intrigued or blew us away.

The Strange, Soothing World of Instagram’s Computer-Generated Interiors

Instagram is full of such images: living rooms, patios, bedrooms, and estates that do not and will never exist. The pictures are strangely soothing, with their fanciful palettes, evocative silhouettes, and enticing water features.

A New Yorker feature that explores how 3D rendering tools have created an entire genre of artificial architectural renderings that strongly evoke moods and engagement. The story is a fascinating intersection of social media, the consumerization of CGI tech, and a pandemic-driven longing for travel.

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