Wednesday, December 10, 2008

To Dream Tomorrow

John Füegi & Jo Francis of Flare Productions make fantastic documentary films, including a documentary about our very own Ada Lovelace. Ada Byron Lovelace: To Dream Tomorrow includes interview with Sadie Plant and Miranda Seymour amongst others, to give an overview of her life, and locate her firmly within the history of computing. The film clearly describes the importance of Ada's Notes which accompanied the designs for the Analytical Engine. The notes anticipate the importance of the engine as a universal machine, not simply for calculating numbers, but for computing symbols and rules. What we might call algorithms and data. Füegi &Francis describe their intensive research process for the film, and cite Doron Swade's statement in the film which is worth repeating here:

"Ada saw something that Babbage in some sense failed to see. In Babbage's world his engines were bound by number. He saw that the machines could do algebra in the narrow sense that they could manipulate plus and minus signs. But all his calculating engines, his Difference Engine and his Analytical Engine, which is the programmable general purpose machine, were all bound by number, they manipulated number as a manifestation of quantity. What Lovelace saw was that number could represent entities other than quantity. So once you had a machine for manipulating numbers, if those numbers represented other things, letters, musical notes, then the machine could manipulate symbols of which number was one instance, according to rules. This is a fundamental transition from a machine which is a number cruncher to a machine that manipulates symbols according to rules, that is the transition from calculation to general purpose computation. And looking back from the present high ground of modern computing, if we're looking and sifting history for that transition, then that transtion was made explicitly by Ada in that 1843 paper."

The making of the film in 2003, coincided both with the 150th anniversary of the death of Ada, Countess Lovelace (27 November 1852), and marked Doron Swade's completion in 2002 at London's Science Museum of the printer Babbage designed to work either with the Difference Engine or the Analytical Engine. Both the engine and the printer in all their beauty are seen working in the film.

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