Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage in Lego form: you can help make it happen
- Alex Johnston
- 29 April 2016
Edinburgh creator designs Lego project depicting the Victorian pioneers of the modern programmable computer
Ada Lovelace, 1815–1852. Charles Babbage, 1791–1871. She was a writer, a mathematician, a thinker and a passionate gambler. He was an engineer, a philosopher and a polymath with a violent hatred of street musicians. They fought crime!
Well, no, they didn't, not in real life, anyway (we'll explain later.) They did something even cooler: between them, they came up with the idea for the first programmable computer. In 1822, Babbage designed a device he called a Difference Engine: a machine that could automatically do the kind of computing that normally had to be done by hordes of numerate but very bored clerks. The British government cried 'Make it happen!' and hurled money at him to build one. Twenty years later it still wasn't finished, but by then, Babbage had come up with an even more ambitious idea: the Analytical Engine, which incorporated a logic unit and a memory store, so it could do operations on its own operations.
The Analytical Engine never got built either (in fact, it's still never been built) but a friend of Babbage saw possibilities in it that he hadn't considered: Ada, Countess of Lovelace, a talented young mathematician (and, Eng lit fans, the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron.) Lovelace was excited by the Analytical Engine's possibilities, and when she translated an article about it by an Italian mathematician, she added a series of notes which were longer than the article itself. In one of them, she made what would prove to be a prophetic observation: '[the Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine […].'
In other words, Ada Lovelace figured out that a machine that could process numbers could process anything that could be rendered in numerical form, and in so doing, she predicted the modern computer. Even Babbage never believed that his engines would be good for anything other than calculating. Lovelace speculated that they might compose music. She also came up with an algorithm for getting the Analytical Engine to compute Bernoulli Numbers, which has led her to be hailed by some as the world's first computer programmer, although since the algorithm never got to be implemented it might be more accurate (and no less honourable) to call her the world's first computer geek.
Lovelace and Babbage are heroes of computer science, and one man has found a unique way to spread the word about them. Stewart Lamb Cromar of the Learning, Teaching and Web Services department of Edinburgh University has designed ridiculously cute Lego models of Lovelace, Babbage and the Analytical Engine, and has launched it as a proposal on Lego's website, where you can vote to support it. At the time of writing it has 8,597 supporters and if it gets 10,000, Lego may consider producing it as an official retail item, unleashing Lovelace and Babbage to the brick-addicted sprogs of the world. Cromar estimates that the whole project is composed of about 500 bricks and would cost in the region of £40. For extra awesome points, the Engine has an access panel and enough space inside to accommodate a mini-computer such as Raspberry Pi or BBC's micro: bit.
Cromar started the Lego Lovelace project as a tribute to his late father David, a mechanical engineering graduate who passed his love of technology on to his son. Assiduous work promoting the project on social media has earned enthusiastic thumbs-up from people as diverse as Royal Observatory Astronomer Marek Kukula, software engineer Grady Booch and BBC Radio 6's Lauren Laverne.
Ada Lovelace was a visionary of technology, and don't even get us started on how eccentrically brilliant Babbage was. In real life, she died young at 36, and he never got to finish either of his engines. In fiction, they really did fight crime, in Sydney Padua's glorious comic The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace & Babbage. And if Stewart Cromar's Lego project gets enough supporters, they could have a new life as Lego adventurers, conquering the world with only a fan, a cravat, a hand-cranked computing machine and bags of attitude. People, the ball is in your court.
The closing date to register support for the Lego Lovelace & Babbage project is Fri 12 May, 2017.