A Rare Ada Lovelace Manuscript Just Sold For Over $100k — Here's Why It's A Big Deal
Ada Lovelace was the world's first computer programmer, writing algorithms for Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine: a 19th century calculator that was far ahead of its time. A rare, first-edition copy of an Ada Lovelace book containing her programming for the Analytical Engine to calculate Bernoulli numbers has just sold at auction for £95,000 — or nearly $125,000 U.S. Ada Lovelace is one of many women in history whose contributions to society are only now getting the recognition they have long deserved, so it's a pretty big deal that her work is now being valued highly by collectors.
The only daughter of Lord Byron and his wife, Annabella Noel Byron, Ada Lovelace grew up away from her famous poet father, who died when she was a child. Her mother actively discouraged Lovelace from pursuing poetry and the arts, believing it to be the source of Byron's "madness," and instead emphasized mathematics in Lovelace's curriculum and education. The mathematician later became acquainted with Babbage and his Analytical Engine, and translated an algorithm for the engine Luigi Federico Menabrea into English from the original Italian.
According to The Guardian, that translation, plus Lovelace's "reflections as well as explanatory notes featuring a groundbreaking algorithm, considered by some experts to be the first computer program," constitute the book — succinctly titled Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage Esq by LF Menabrea of Turin, Officer of the Military Engineers, with Notes by the Translator — that was sold at auction for such a hefty sum. Luckily, you don't have to pay that much to read it — you can read the book online.
Sketch of the Analytical Engine brought in more money than expected at the Moore Allen & Innocent auction house, where it was estimated to fetch between £40,000 and £60,000, or approximately $53,000 and $79,000. The book ultimately "was sold for £95,000 to a Cotswolds book dealer on behalf of an anonymous buyer." The copy is one of only six known first editions in existence.
Ursula Martin, co-author of the 2018 Lovelace biography published by The Bodleian Library, told The Guardian that "Recent scholarship, seeing past the naivety and misogyny of earlier work, has recognised that [Lovelace] was an able mathematician, and that her paper went beyond the ironmongery of Babbage’s never-built invention to give far reaching insights into the nature and potential of computation." Other women whose contributions to science and mathematics were overlooked in their lifetimes include Hedy Lamarr, Rosalind Franklin, Lise Meitner, and the many Human Computers who worked for NACA/NASA in the mid-20th century.
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelave and Babbage by Sydney Padua, $19.68, Amazon
Lovelace's popularity in recent years has given rise to a market for her papers among collectors, as well as my personal favorite Lovelace "artifact": Sydney Padua's graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, which imagines what 19th century life would have been like had Babbage actually built his Analtyical Engine. You can read one of Padua's Lovelace comics online.