The World's First Computer Program: A Rare Copy of Ada Lovelace's Algorithm Sells for $125,000

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images / Hulton Archive, Getty Images

One hundred and fifty years before the computer became a household item, English mathematician Ada Lovelace wrote the first computer algorithm. The Guardian reports that a first-edition manuscript containing that historic program has sold at auction for more than $125,000.

In addition to being the world's first computer programmer, Lovelace was the daughter of the Romantic poet Lord Byron, which allowed her to mingle with England's leading thinkers. As a teenager, she met and became friends with Charles Babbage, the Cambridge mathematics professor who is credited with conceptualizing the first programmable computer. Babbage shared and discussed his ideas for his analytical engine with her for years, and by the time she reached her late 20s, she had her own expertise to offer.

In 1842, Babbage gave a lecture on his concept at the University of Turin. The Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea transcribed it in French, and Lovelace was asked to transcribe it in English. She inserted her own notes in the text, including a suggestion for an algorithm that would program the engine, and the final manuscript ended up being three times as long as the original transcript.

The manuscript was published in 1843, and there are only six bound copies of it known to exist today. The Moore Allen & Innocent auction house expected the copy they had to sell for $50,000 to $80,000, but it went to an anonymous buyer by way of a Cotswolds book dealer for $125,000.

Lovelace is famous for her role in computer history today, but for decades her work went largely unrecognized. It was only in 2009 that her fans launched Ada Lovelace Day, a date in mid-October dedicated to women in STEM.

Neither Lovelace nor Babbage lived to see the analytical engine become a functioning machine, but Lovelace had an eerily prophetic vision of what their work meant for the future. She predicted that computer programs would one day be used to compose music, create graphics, and conduct scientific work.

[h/t The Guardian]