Graham King

Solvitas perambulum

How Ada Lovelace solved problems


Over 170 years ago, on Friday 21st July 1843, at 4 o’clock, Ada Lovelace was working on a mathematics problem, possibly on the first known computer program (it was written that summer).

Specifically she was writing extensive notes on her translation of a paper about Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, and she was collaborating closely with Babbage to do so. Had it been built the Analytical Engine would have been the first universal computer. Those notes include the first known computer program (and trace of it’s manual execution), which calculates Bernoulli numbers.

But at 4pm on Friday 21st July, she was stuck. It just wasn’t working. We know because she wrote this letter to Babbage:

My dear Babbage. I am in much dismay at having got into so amazing a quagmire and botheration with these numbers, that I cannot possibly get the thing done today. I have no doubts it will all come out clean enough tomorrow; & I shall send you a parcel up, as early in the day as I can. So do no be uneasy. (Tho’ at this moment I am in a charming state of confusion; but it is that sort of confusion which is of a very bubble nature).

I am now going out on horseback. Tant mieux.

Yours puzzle-pate

That ever happened to you? It’s 4pm on a Friday, and it just isn’t working? You know it will be obvious in the morning. So what did Ada do? She went for a horseback ride!

The tagline of this blog is Solvitas Perambulum, Latin for “solve it as you walk”. I find it particularly charming that 172 years ago, the first computer programmer solved it by going for a horseback ride.

Pictures of the original letter can be found in Stephen Wolfram’s fantastic blog post: Untangling the tale of Ada Lovelace.

Happy walking.