Babbage was fascinated by the limits of what mechanical technology could do. He believed it was possible to build a machine that could, in principle, calculate anything.
His Analytical Engine – had it ever been built – would have been the first operational, general-purpose computer.
It would also have been powered by steam, the size of a factory – and by modern standards, very slow.
Babbage understood that his computer would need to be able to carry out this 'List of Operations’. Modern computers use exactly the same list of instructions.
While Babbage’s spiky personality may have rubbed his funders up the wrong way, he could still command a crowd. His ‘salons’ attracted the cream of society – including a young Ada Lovelace, who was captivated by his ideas.
Daughter of Romantic-era poet Lord Byron and his scientifically minded wife Isabella, Lovelace had studied mathematics to a high level. And in 1843, she collaborated with Babbage on a description of his unbuilt Analytical Engine.
The article, which includes this diagram, shows every step in the calculation of a formula. It is sometimes – a little inaccurately – called “the first computer programme”.
What Ada describes as “here follows a repetition ...“, we would now call a loop.
Beyond Babbage and Lovelace
But computers can’t think for themselves – they have to be programmed by a human being.
As Ada Lovelace wrote:
The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform.
Nearly two hundred years later, twenty-first century programming languages combine ordinary language, logic and mathematics to give computers precise, unambiguous instructions.
And modern Artificial Intelligence (AI) programmes – far more complex and sophisticated than anything than Lovelace or Babbage could imagine – produce results that their programmers could never have predicted.