Oct 11 2022

Move over Patch Tuesday – it’s Ada Lovelace Day!

Category: Security patchingDISC @ 9:30 pm

The second Tuesday of every month is Microsoft’s regular day for security updates, still known by almost everyone by its unofficial nickname of “Patch Tuesday”.

But the second Tuesday in October is also Ada Lovelace Day, celebrating Ada, Countess of Lovelace.

Ada was a true pioneer not only of computing, but also of computer science, and gave her name to the programming language Ada.

The Ada language, intriguingly, emerged from a US Department of Defense project aimed at “debabelising” the world of governmental coding, where every department semed to favour a different language, or a different language dialect, making it more difficult, more expensive, and less reliable to get them to work together.

Ada Lovelace’s era

You might be surprised to find, given how strongly Ada’s name is associated with the beginnings of computer science, that she lived in the first half of the nineteenth century, long before anything that we currently recognise as a computer, or even a calculator, existed.

(Ada died of uterine cancer in 1852 at just 36 years old.)

But although computers in their modern sense didn’t exist in the 1800s, they very nearly did.

Here’s how it almost happened.

Charles Babbage, in the early 1800s, famously devised a mechanical calculating device called the Difference Engine that could, in theory at least, automatically solve polynomial equations in the sixth degree, e.g. by finding values for X that would satisfy:

aX6 + bX5 +cX4 +dX3 +eX2 + fX + g = 0

The UK government was interested, because a device of this sort could be used for creating accurate mathematical tables, such as square roots, logarithms and trigonometric ratios.

And any machine good at trigonometric calculations would also be handy for computing things like gunnery tables that could revolutionise the accuracy of artillery at land and sea.

But Babbage had two problems.

Firstly, he could never quite reach the engineering precision needed to get the Difference Engine to work properly, because it involved sufficiently many interlocking gears that backlash (tiny but cumulative inaccuracies leading to “sloppiness” in the mechanism) would lock it up.

Secondly, he seems to have lost interest in the Difference Engine when he realised it was a dead end – in modern terms, you can think of it as a pocket calculator, but not as a tablet computer or a laptop.

So Babbage leapt ahead with the design of a yet more complex device that he dubbed the Analytical Engine, which could work out much more general scientific problems than one sort of polynomial equation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, if regrettably in hindsight. the government wasn’t terribly interested in funding Babbage’s more advanced project.

Given that he hadn’t managed to build the mechanism needed for a much simpler equation solver, what chance did a giant, steam-powered, general-purpose computer have of ever delivering any useful results?

The European conference circuit

Tags: Ada Lovelace Day