In 1843, an anonymous English author translated an Italian paper about a theoretical computing machine, adding detailed notes and observations about the paper while doing so. The notes, which were longer than the paper itself, included a pioneering formula that is considered by some experts to be the first computer program in history.
As Alison Flood reports for the Guardian, a rare, leather-bound copy of this manuscript recently sold at a U.K. auction for almost $125,000 (£95,000). An inscription on the title page reveals the identity of the work’s author: “Lady Lovelace.”
Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician with remarkably prescient insight into the capabilities of computers, was first recognized as the woman behind the paper in 1848, just a few years before she died of cancer at the age of 36. The manuscript that recently sold at auction is one of just six known copies. Moore Allen and Innocent, the auction house that sold the book, expected it would fetch between $52,000 and $78,000 (£40,000 and £60,000); the manuscript was purchased for a substantially higher price by an unnamed buyer.
When she was just 17, Lovelace was introduced to the inventor Charles Babbage, who showed her a small working section of his “Analytical Engine”—a “revolutionary device [that] … was intended to be able to perform any arithmetical calculation using punched cards that would deliver the instructions, as well as a memory unit to store numbers and many other fundamental components of today's computers,” according to the BBC.
Lovelace was fascinated, and the two struck up an intellectual partnership. In 1840, Babbage presented his plans for the Analytical Engine at a seminar at the University of Turin. The mathematician L.F. Menabrea, who would later become the prime minister of Italy, was in attendance, and he subsequently reported on the as-yet-to-be-built machine in an obscure Swiss publication. According to a Moore Allen and Innocent statement, Babbage asked Lovelace to translate Menabrea’s paper into English.
She complied with his request, but also went further, adding copious explanatory notes that included a formula she devised for calculating the seventh Bernoulli number using the machine. This formula is often recognized as the first computer program. Some have argued that it was in fact Babbage who wrote the famed sequence, though, as the Ada Lovelace Project notes, there is "ample contemporary evidence in the form of Lovelace’s letters to Babbage" to suggest that the ideas were hers.
Just as significant as the program were Lovelace’s theories about what computers would one day be able to do. According to Claire Caine Miller of the New York Times, Lovelace anticipated in 1843 that the machines had the potential to not only calculate numbers, but also understand symbols and create music or art.
“I like to think of her as the first computer scientist,” Lovelace scholar Ursula Martin tells Flood of the Guardian. “She’s also thinking about broader abstract ideas than just the first program – she’s thinking about computing as something you could build theories of, and she’s thinking about what sort of things you can compute.”
The manuscript that recently sold is inscribed with additional handwritten notes—including the title page inscription that credits Lovelace as the author of the work—by Lovelace’s friend Dr. William King (not to be confused with her husband, who was also named William King). Dr. King is believed to have been the original owner of the book, which auctioneer Philip Allwood describes as “the first separate edition of arguably the most important paper in the history of digital computing before modern times.”