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a man slumped on his desk, from 'The Sleep of Reason Produces



a vindication of ada’s rights

We took Ada and friends down to the Computer History Museum this weekend, to see the Difference Engine, on loan from Nathan Myhrvold until April.

The computer museum looks a lot better than when I last gatecrashed it — back then it was just a hangar in the local NASA airfield, and me and the guide had to clamber over its stash of artifacts to find the really good stuff. I’ll never forget him casually handing me a disk of metal, saying “Hold this a sec”. I gave him exactly the right feedline, which was “What is this?” to which the answer was, “Oh, yes, you’re British, you might be interested:It’s a piece of Colossus“.

These days, it’s a slightly more bland, but far more professional building in the sprawling business ‘burbs of Mountain View. It’s pretty tiny, unless they don’t open the whole thing on Sundays. There’s an exhibit on computer chess, one on innovation in the Valley, the temporary exhibit of the Difference Engine — and the treasure chest of the museum, the Visual Storage exhibit.

If you’ve ever wondered how best to understand the effect of Moore’s Law, the Visual Storage exhibit is the place to go. I thought the five-to-seven year olds would be bored by this part of the museum, but they visibly gaped at the size of previous generations of PCs. “LOOK AT THE SIZE OF THIS PRINTER”, screamed Ada in joy. And, then, just to make me feel old, had me lift her up to show her the exhibit I was standing, dwarfed by the room-sized IBMs, DECs and Zuses. “That was your first computer?” she said, staring at the dusty, wooden, Ohio Scientific single board machine sitting under glass. I had that feeling that older people describe, that one day they would be wheeled in to join their belongings in a local museum.

The museum was mostly empty, but their was a little pool of geeks hanging around this display, all frozen with teariness. When I muttered under my breath, “But no BBC Micro”, a guy next to me swivelled around to face me. “I still have one! You turn them on, and beep! Ready to use!”

Really, though, I was hear to show Ada the Difference Engine. At one o’clock and two o’clock on Saturdays, museum volunteers arrive to explain the maths, and crank the engine to produce a table entry or two. As we sat and watched the amazing, DNA-spiralling beauty of Babbage’s carry bits, I prompted Ada to tell the docent her name. The volunteer broke out of her patter and did a marvellous speech directed to Ada about Ada Lovelace, explaining her great imagination, and how her mother had tried to make her mathematician because she was scared she would end up a waistrel poet like her father, but how she was sure in another age, like now, when we have greater freedom to choose who we want to be, Ada would have been able to be both fine mathematician and a fine poet. Ada was wide-eyed: she had clapped her hands in delight earlier in the day hearing about the woman who could imagine computers a century before they were even made, but this sealed the deal.

I was happy, because there was nothing about Lovelace in any of the literature or talks about the Difference Engine (possibly fairly, given she was all about the Analytical Engine, but still). Later, the docent explained to me the extra irony. The building used to be SGI’s headquarters: the first room they re-named in the building was “the Lovelace Room”. When it came to fit the Difference Engine into the building, they had to knock it down.

6 Responses to “a vindication of ada’s rights”

  1. Cory Doctorow Says:

    That literally brought a tear to my eye! I can’t wait to take Poesy to some museum’s Fibonacci Room!

  2. Martin Rodgers Says:

    “Oh, yes, you’re British, you might be interested:It’s a piece of Colossus”.

    That wouldn’t be Eugene Miya, would it? It sounds like him…

  3. Cait Says:

    @Cory: you soppy bastard.

    Damn, I haven’t got a tissue…

    Danny – PhilG came over on Sunday, and Nora spent half the afternoon only answering to the name Ernest again! Being able to make links to good, GOOOOD things is so brilliant. You can see the lights go on.

  4. Waider Says:

    I’ve had my disagreements with Cory, but I have to admit I’m in full agreement with him here.

    Just to clarify: it’s not the computers that have me teary, either :)

  5. Mum Says:

    That’s so great. This one goes into Ada’s box ok.

  6. Judith Says:

    Glad you enjoyed the presentation. I was as delighted to meet a child named for Ada as she apparently was to meet the Engine. Yes, it is a small exhibit – only about 1% of the collection. Big, fancy exhibit is under development but a year or more away. Watch the website and plan to come back.


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