Computers

Rare book containing the world’s first computer algorithm earns $125,000 at auction

Ada Lovelace and the signed faceplate of the book
Ada Lovelace and the signed faceplate of the book
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The cover of the previously unknown volume of Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage Esq by L.F. Menabrea of Turin, officer of the Military Engineers, with notes by the translator'
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The cover of the previously unknown volume of Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage Esq by L.F. Menabrea of Turin, officer of the Military Engineers, with notes by the translator'
The cover of the previously unknown volume of Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage Esq by L.F. Menabrea of Turin, officer of the Military Engineers, with notes by the translator
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The cover of the previously unknown volume of Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage Esq by L.F. Menabrea of Turin, officer of the Military Engineers, with notes by the translator
Ada Lovelace
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Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace's signature on the faceplate of this volume, presumed to have been originally owned by her friend and adviser, Dr William King
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Ada Lovelace's signature on the faceplate of this volume, presumed to have been originally owned by her friend and adviser, Dr William King
The cover of the previously unknown volume of Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage Esq by L.F. Menabrea of Turin, officer of the Military Engineers, with notes by the translator
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The cover of the previously unknown volume of Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage Esq by L.F. Menabrea of Turin, officer of the Military Engineers, with notes by the translator
Ada Lovelace and the signed faceplate of the book
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Ada Lovelace and the signed faceplate of the book
Handwritten notes within the volume, attributed to Dr. William King, friend and adviser of Lady Lovelace
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Handwritten notes within the volume, attributed to Dr. William King, friend and adviser of Lady Lovelace
Lovelace’s diagram from Note G within the book, the first published computer algorithm
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Lovelace’s diagram from Note G within the book, the first published computer algorithm

A rare 175 year-old book containing the world's first computer algorithm by Ada Lovelace – mathematician and daughter of Lord Byron – has been sold at auction in England for £95,000 (US$125,000).

Only five copies of Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage Esq by L.F. Menabrea of Turin, officer of the Military Engineers, with notes by the translator were known to exist (Harvard University has two of them). That was until this one was found in a box of books owned by a couple in the Cotswolds.

Auctioneer Philip Allwood described the lot as "the first separate edition of arguably the most important paper in the history of digital computing before modern times" and "an extremely rare piece."

The cover of the previously unknown volume of Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage Esq by L.F. Menabrea of Turin, officer of the Military Engineers, with notes by the translator
The cover of the previously unknown volume of Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage Esq by L.F. Menabrea of Turin, officer of the Military Engineers, with notes by the translator

The book began as a translation from an account of Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine by Luigi Menabrea (later to become the Italian Prime Minister) but Lovelace couldn't help but add many pages of her own notes during the year-long project. Among these additions were her revolutionary observations that Babbage's machine could have applications beyond pure calculation – in a way, foreseeing the the future of computing – and of course, her historic algorithm.

In Note G of the text, Lovelace describes an algorithm for the Analytical Engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. This is widely regarded as the first published algorithm written for a computer, and it's for this reason that Ada Lovelace is often cited as our first ever computer programmer.

Lovelace’s diagram from Note G within the book, the first published computer algorithm
Lovelace’s diagram from Note G within the book, the first published computer algorithm

Auction house Moore, Allen & Innocent knew it had something special on its hands and gave the volume an estimated value of £40,000 to £60,000 ($52,000 - $79,000) but expected far more. In the end, the hammer fell on the final bid of a £95,000 from a Cotswolds book dealer acting on behalf of an anonymous buyer.

While the book was published in 1843, it wasn't until 1848 that Lovelace's identity as the translator was revealed, four years before her death from cancer at the age of 36.

The Cirencester copy was signed Lady Lovelace on the title page, under the line "with notes by the translator" while handwritten notes on the flyleaf were attributed to Dr William King (not to be confused with her husband William King-Noel), a friend and adviser of Lady Lovelace, who is presumed to be the original owner of the book.

Ada Lovelace's signature on the faceplate of this volume, presumed to have been originally owned by her friend and adviser, Dr William King
Ada Lovelace's signature on the faceplate of this volume, presumed to have been originally owned by her friend and adviser, Dr William King

In a letter to scientist Michael Farrady, Babbage described Lovelace as "that enchantress who has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects (in our country at least) could have exerted over it."

Source: Moore Allen & Innocent

1 comment
jerryd
She, not Babbage is the real inventor of computing including most of the machine was her design too. I think it is time to give her the honor she deserves, not Babbage for both programs and designing, making the computer actually work. Without her, Babbage would never have gotten anywhere close.