She isn’t your typical English girl from the early 1800s. She’s a girl who, because of her fortunate and unfortunate family circumstances, ends up perfectly situated to become part of something that will revolutionize the world.

Ginette: “For many reasons, she isn’t your typical English girl from the early 1800s. She’s a girl who at one point examines birds to discover their body-to-wing ratio so she can invent a flying machine and write a book about it. These are goals that show mathematical skill, creativity, and initiative. She’s also a girl who, because of her fortunate and unfortunate family circumstances, ends up perfectly situated to become part of something that will revolutionize the world.”

Ginette: “I’m Ginette.”

Curtis: “And I’m Curtis.”

Ginette: “And you are listening to Data Crunch.”

Curtis: “A podcast about how data and prediction shape our world.”

Ginette: “A Vault Analytics production.”

Curtis: “In our last episode on the history of data science, we talked about the origins of charts and data visualization, which are an important to data science, but in today’s story, we’re going to start a new thread that’s absolutely essential to the fabric of this history. We’re going to talk about some brilliant inventors that gave rise to an idea that would change the course of history—arguably one of the most powerful ideas that has shaped our modern world. It’s a story of triumph and innovation, but also of tragedy, because even though the ideas they moved forward had a dramatic effect on all of us in the long run, in the short term, many of these people saw their dreams fall apart before their eyes. So today and in our next episode, we pay homage to some key people who started the wave that gave us technology that makes our modern lives possible. And we’re gonna to do that first by getting back to the story of the girl we mentioned in the intro.”

Ginette: “Interestingly enough, this episode ties into our last episode in an unexpected way. The little girl we introduced to you earlier is born about the same time as Florence Nightingale. She’s about five years older.

“We have to understand a little bit about her parents, Annabella and George, to have a better insight into her, so here’s a peek into their lives: They’re both highly intelligent, capable, and well-educated, and they’re from high society. George is more verbal and artistic, and Annabella is more logical and mathematical.

“From the start, the pair is not a good match. Annabella sees George’s flaws, but she also sees George’s potential. Beyond that, Annabella is probably attracted to his very handsome (as a lot of people describe him), bad-boy, wild-and-wooly type. One good example of his rebellious nature and disdain for authority is how he exploits a loophole in college to flout what he considers is an absolutely outrageous school rule: since the university won’t let him bring his cherished pet dog with him, he defiantly keeps in his Cambridge University apartments a tame pet bear. Essentially, as loopholes work, the rule doesn’t explicitly say no pet bears, so the university in his mind can’t immediately do anything about it—this may be partly why he only lasts there a term. Anyway, these are the types of things Annabella thinks she can change about George.

“On George’s side of things, he notices Annabella’s sharp intellect. She’s incredibly smart. From early childhood, her parents recognize her natural brilliance and essentially give her what most women can’t get in those days—the equivalent of a Cambridge University education. Something else George likes about Annabella is that she’s down to earth. So eventually, he proposes to her, and probably against her better judgement, she says ‘yes’, and they get married, but within a year, things get messy.

“She notices George’s strange behavior. He’s dark, he’s angry, he’s brooding. And over time, he starts doing other odd things and even lashes out at her. His behavior may stem from the financial stress he’s under; it may stem from the fact that they now have a child on the way, or both, but whatever the cause is, his heavy drinking and drugs make it worse.

“Unfortunately, right after the couple delivers their first and only child together—a little girl, formally named Augusta—George’s strange behavior doesn’t let up. His behavior is so odd that some later on go so far as to say he’s basically a psychopath. From Annabella’s angle, all she knows is that things are off, and she becomes concerned something is seriously wrong with George, so she starts documenting his behavior. At one point, she even has a doctor surreptitiously check out George’s mental health without George knowing that’s why the doctor’s there. In the end, she’s convinced—he’s mentally unstable, and it’s hereditary, which may not be too far from the mark since his relatives’ nicknames are Mad Jack, Devil Byron, and The Wicked Lord. Either way, in the end, she wants a divorce, a very unusual thing in 19th century England.

“This whole experience leaves Annabella angry at George, and she’s never able to let it go. Lots of people throughout history have differing opinions on who’s at fault here and what their flaws are, but whatever the truth is, Annabella sincerely thinks George is insane and that she has to save her daughter from this illness. So she devises an unusual plan: to keep Augusta, who’s now nicknamed Ada, from this malady, she has to stabilize her daughter’s mind. So she implements a series of self-control exercises for Ada, things like staying still for long periods of time. She also carefully structures Ada’s education plan by centering it on rigorous studies in mathematics and logic. Not only did Annabella love math herself, but in her mind, this was the antidote to George’s hereditary madness. Math and logic would probably have the effect of fortifying Ada’s mind, and they were far from the main artistic interests of George, a person you may better know by the of name of ‘Lord Byron,’ one of the most famous English poets of all time.

“So with all of that in mind, here’s this little girl, Ada Byron, growing up in an isolated country side with her mom; her governesses; her tutors; and her cat, Mrs. Puff. Like her parents, she’s gifted, and her caretakers start noticing she’s a natural at math, which most females in her day don’t have an opportunity to delve into.

“Ada turns out to be smart, innovative, and methodical. For example, at one point while traveling Europe as a twelve-year old child, she’s exposed to new ideas, and these ideas percolate and spark a new determination in her: she decides she’s going to fly—and since hot air balloons were invented in 1783 in France, the idea of flight isn’t too farfetched in early 1800s England. So when she returns to her isolated, countryside life, she works on what she calls flyology. She methodically designs wings by checking out possibly materials, like oil silk, paper, wires, and feathers. And soon she’s examining and noting the wing-to-body proportions of the birds. Eventually she decides she needs to integrate steam into her design. As she works on the mechanics of flying, she also thinks through all the things she needs to bring with her to properly navigate her flight, things like a compass. In the end, the 12-year-old girl never realizes success with her invention or publishes a book on flyology like she wanted to, but this paints a clear picture of her determination and methodical nature from a young age.

“So she grows older, and one day, she turns 17, and she gets to do something only people in good graces and in high society get to do. She’s formally presented at court. This basically means that she meets the king, she’s on the marriage market, and she now can attend social events that as a younger girl were closed to her. Now this is where things really start to progress for Ada. After she’s introduced at court, she basically becomes the attractive new girl around town. She’s new, she’s charming, and even better, she’s smart, and people recognize her for her quote ‘brilliant mind.’

“Ada ends up perfectly situated in society to be part of elite scientific circles. One of her tutors, and a good friend of her mother’s, is Mary Somerville. Mary is brilliant, especially in astronomy and math, and she has a distinguished scientific publishing career, which makes her very highly respected and puts her on the forefront of the scientific intellectual scene. She’s known as one of the most intelligent woman in England and Scotland, if not all of Europe. Simon-Pierre Laplace, essential France’s Isaac Newton, said that Mary was one of only two women who could understand his works.

“It’s because of Mary’s influence and connections that Ada meets inventor and fellow mathematician, Charles, who invites Ada and her mother over to his house for a party, maybe to introduce Ada to his same-aged son. Who knows. Regardless, he’s impressed enough with Ada’s analytical ability that he invites Ada and her mother back after that party to see something revolutionary, an invention that could save hundreds of man hours and potentially hundreds of lives.”

Curtis: “Before we unveil this invention to you, there’s some  backstory we need to cover first: back then and even into the early 1900s, calculations were generally done by hand, and often this was done by teams of workers, and the people that did these calculations were called ‘computers,’ and that was their actual job title and their job description.

“Back then, in the 1800s, a computer wasn’t a machine. It was a human being that actually did lots and lots of calculations. If you were a computer, you calculated whatever needed to be calculate and sometimes that means you had to sit down and produce hundreds and thousands of calculations by hand. And sometimes these would be published into books full of tables that then other people would use as the base of their calculations to try and cut down on the tedium of doing these same calculations over and over again. There’s a problem with that: if you have an error in one of the calculations that you publish in a book and then another calculations is based on the calculation you published in the book, then that calculation is also going to be wrong, and you’ve unintentionally infected everyone’s calculation down the line.

“Back in the 1800s, this is a really big problem, and they tried to avoid it by trying to minimize these human errors. They’d often have two people do a calculation, and if it didn’t come out the same, they’d know it was wrong. But even this wasn’t 100 percent effective. The calculations were hard. They were tedious, and as you can imagine, the answers were very error prone. And calculations were used for things like bridges, ship courses, projectile trajectories, You get the idea.

“If you miscalculate and it ends up in one of your tables, you may very well send someone to an early death, maybe a bridge collapses or a boat gets stuck on some remote shoal and nobody can escape, maybe projectiles are aimed at the wrong angle and they drop at an unintended location. In any of these situations, you could have a very negative consequence.

“So keep that in mind for the time period. Ada and her mom return to Charles’s house where he unveils and demonstrates this newly assembled prototype that he invented. It’s a hand-cranked instrument that’s two feet high and has 2,000 brass pieces. And he calls it his Difference Engine. It’s absolutely stunning. It’s potentially revolutionary. It’s a machine that can take the human error out of calculations and save immense amounts of time. And it was the very first time that you had an assembled, automatic computing machine, basically a calculator. And the sheer possibility of what it meant to people in that time was thrilling because now you have this machine that can do the work of teams of humans, and do it accurately and do it quickly and have no errors and save hundreds of hours of time.

“Now, we do need step back here and at least note that Charles Babbage wasn’t the first to think of this concept, and that honor actually belongs to J. H. Muller, but Charles Babbage was the first to design and build an actual working prototype. But there’s even more to the story than just the invention of this large, insanely complicated mechanical calculator—Babbage eventually had an idea that would completely revolutionize the world.

“So as Charles was working on his inventions, he initially had government funding for the Difference Engine, but he eventually loses it. In the government’s eyes, it’s costing too much money, and it’s taking too long to produce. So Charles is deeply frustrated by this, but he finds solace in the fact that he actually has a much bigger and much bolder idea than even the Difference Engine, which was incredible in his time period. He dreams of a machine that could go far beyond what the Difference Engine could do. Instead of being limited to a basic set of equations that the Difference Engine would execute hundreds of times over and over and over, he actually dreams of a machine that he could give specific instructions to and have it perform any equation, in any order, with any kind of complex logic built in.

“Now anyone in computer science will understand how important this idea truly is because it’s essentially the concept and the foundational idea for the modern-day computer. But back then, it was constrained by mid-1800’s technology, which was a difficult hurdle to overcome. This machine was infinitely more flexible and powerful than the Difference Engine, and infinitely faster and more accurate than human computers, and he called it the Analytical Engine. He details plans showing a machine that he could program with punch cards, an idea actually that originates from Jacquard’s textile weaving loom.”

Ginette: Ada becomes obsessed with the Difference Engine, and eventually the Analytical Engine, which sparks her relentless pursuit of math, at which she rapidly excels. At one point, Charles recognizes her mathematical skills, and he nicknames her the ‘Enchantress of Number.’ Her fascination with this machine leads her to do something that, unknown to her at the time, will eventually make both her famous and controversial, which we’ll get to.

“During this time, Ada Byron gets married and becomes Ada Lovelace. She has children, which stops her work for a bit, but she continues to work and learn with Charles about his inventions when she can. She finally comes to a point where she’s ready to do more intellectual work. Maybe the kids are getting older or she’s itching to use her brain in a different capacity, but either way, she sees two opportunities: (1) Charles has never personally published anything on his first invention, which seems crazy. So here we have this genius who invents what will become one of the most important technological ideas in history, and the only formal document on it is a French paper which he didn’t even publish. It was published by an Italian army engineer who heard Charles speak about his invention in Italy. So opportunity number one, she sees a chance to translate and publish this paper in England. (2) Charles was not the most efficient worker. He’s easily distracted from completing his projects, so Ada sees that she can help him by taking on a formal role to strongly encourage him to complete his second invention, the Analytical Engine. So she aims to take on something like a CEO role, and Charles would be something like a CTO.

“So she goes about her plan and starts with her first aim. She translates the French paper into English, submits it for publication, and it gets published. This publication brings her a lot of notoriety. For instance, contemporary scientist Michael Faraday calls her ‘the rising star of science.’ And she starts seeing possibilities: maybe she can start a scientific publishing career like her famous tutor Mary Somerville and come to prominence that way.

“But it isn’t this translation alone that impresses contemporaries and some future generations; it’s her incredible set of extensive notes that she includes with the translation. In her notes for her paper about the Difference Engine, she publishes what some call the first formally documented computer program for Charles Babbage’s second invention, the Analytical Engine. According to some, this makes her the very first computer programmer. It’s important to note here that in recent years, there’s been a strong debate over her role in that program. Some people think Charles had more of a hand in the program than she did and that he has programs that predate her publication. In any case, she’s the first to formally document and describe a computer program, which preserves it.

“And while her position as the first computer programmer is in debated, what isn’t debated is that she is a visionary. Where her mathematical and natural artistic flairs converge, she sees the future of computers differently than other scientists and even Charles himself, the machine’s inventor. Ada suggests that the machine will be able to do things like compose music, and some even believe she foresees it producing graphics. In the end, she believes that given the right inputs and programming, this general machine could do almost anything. She basically envisions it more like our modern-day computers.

“Unfortunately, this is where fate takes a cruel turn for Ada. She gets sick, really sick. She’s no longer able to push Charles towards completing the Analytical Engine. Whether she would have enabled Charles Babbage to complete his Analytical Engine or not, we’ll never know because unfortunately she  dies from cancer at age 34.

“Eventually, Charles dies as well in 1871, never completing his Analytical Engine. But having designed it and many of the basic concepts of modern-day computers, he is known today as the Father of Computers.

“So when did his concept of computers materialize?

“For that, let’s speed up about 100 years from when Charles first introduces his Analytical Engine, in 1837. It seems crazy that it took that long, but things don’t start really progressing in computing until a little before World War II. By this point, some latent computer energy is getting ready to explode.

“So here we are in 1936. Alan Turing develops the theoretical underpinnings of modern computer science. He calls his theory the ‘Turing Machine.’

Curtis: “In 1938, Konrad Zuse in isolation behind German lines produces the the first binary digital, mechanical computer, the z1.”

Ginette: “In 1939, Konrad improves his z1 model to z2, an electromechanical device.”

Curtis: “In 1940, Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman produce the Turing-Welchman Bombe in England, an electromechanical machine that cracked Nazi the military network.”

Ginette: “In 1941, Konrad creates his z3 computer, the world’s first working electromechanical programmable, fully automatic, digital computer.”

Curtis: In 1942 John Atanasoff and his assistant Clifford Berry in Iowa create the first fully electronic computer, the ABC computer.”

Ginette: “In 1943 and 44 Tommy Flowers creates the well-known Colossus machines, which are a group of machines made in England to crack Nazi high-command codes. These are the world’s first digital, electronic, fixed-program computer—basically meaning the computer only has one purpose for its calculations.”

Curtis:In 1944, Howard Aiken at Harvard invented with IBM the ‘Mark 1,’ or the ASCC, a general purpose electromechanical computer.

So in these early computers, we see Charles Babbage’s dream coming true. No longer do large teams of humans computers need to slowly and tediously compute complex equations, and no longer do individual statisticians, like Florence Nightingale, have to endure grueling number crunching by hand. The invention of the computer opens the door to mind-boggling possibilities by putting these monotonous, intensive computations into the hands of fast and accurate, electric-powered machines. This powerful idea will prove to change the entire world into something dramatically different than anything humanity had ever experienced and lay the technological foundation for modern data science.”

Ginette: “In our next episode, we’ll finish the story of how computers revolutionize the world. We’ll delve into how they go from being the size of a small house to something people fit into their pockets. The story involves a top secret military project, the first computer-powered political prediction, and an early industry leader once dismissed as a ‘renegade from the human race.’ See you next time!

“If you like our show, the best compliment you can give us is to share it with friends or people who might find it interesting.

We also want to let you know that one of our goals is to help people understand how to tell good stories with data because being good at telling stories with data is the difference between someone that just pushes reports and someone who is invaluable. If you’re interested in learning how to tell better stories using data, go to

“For our transcript and our sources, head over to our show notes at, and select our most recent episode.

“We’d love to hear from you. If you have any questions, comments, constructive criticism, please send it our way at”


Music Sources:

“Kool Kats” Kevin MacLeod (

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

“Atlantean Twilight” Kevin MacLeod (

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

“Sneaky Snitch” Kevin MacLeod (

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

“Sonatina” Kevin MacLeod (

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

“Gregorian Chant” Kevin MacLeod (

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

“Wepa” Kevin MacLeod (

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

“Floating Cities” Kevin MacLeod (

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

“The Complex” Kevin MacLeod (

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License