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Lot 0003
[Charles Babbage (1791-1871)] – Luigi Federico Menabrea (1809-1896).

'Notions sur la machine analytique de M. Charles Babbage.' In Bibliothèque universelle de Genève. Nouvelle série 41 (1842): 352-376.

First edition of the first published account of Babbage's Analytical Engine, the first account of its logical design, and the first publication of a computer program. In 1840 Babbage travelled to Turin to make a presentation on the Engine to a group of Italian scientists. Babbage's talk, complete with charts, drawings, models, and mechanical notations, emphasized the Engine's signal feature: its ability to guide its own operations. In attendance at Babbage's lecture was the young Italian mathematician Luigi Federico Menabrea (later prime minister of Italy), who prepared from his notes an account of the principles of the Analytical Engine. He published his paper, the present lot, in French in a Swiss journal two years after Babbage's presentation. The paper must have provided some consolation to Babbage, who was refused government funding for the construction of the machine shortly after its publication.

'In keeping with the more general nature and immaterial status of the Analytical Engine, Menabrea's account dealt little with mechanical details. Instead he described the functional organization and mathematical operation of this more flexible and powerful invention. To illustrate its capabilities, he presented several charts or tables of the steps through which the machine would be directed to go in performing calculations and finding numerical solutions to algebraic equations. These steps were the instructions the engine's operator would punch in coded form on cards to be fed into the machine; hence, the charts constituted the first computer programs. Menabrea's charts were taken from those Babbage brought to Torino to illustrate his talks there' (Stein 1985, 92).

What may be the most remarkable aspect of Babbage's monumental invention in thought and engineering was the extent to which it was ignored. Menabrea's twenty-three-page paper and its expanded English translation by Ada, Countess of Lovelace in the following year were the only detailed publications on the Analytical Engine before Babbage's account in his autobiography (1864). Shortly after inventing the machine Babbage wrote a manuscript On the Mathematical Powers of the Calculating Engine (1837) which was not published until about 1970. Menabrea himself wrote only two other very brief articles about the Analytical Engine in 1855. They primarily concerned his surprise and fascination in learning that Ada, Countess of Lovelace was the translator of his paper. Origins of Cyberspace 60.

Octavo (213 x 125mm). Half-title, folding table (scattered light staining and spotting). Contemporary quarter sheep, gilt spine (bottom third of upper joint split, extremities rubbed). Provenance: Ecole Royale d'Art de Toulouse (stamps) – Bibliothèque Service Historique Guerre (stamps).

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The first publication of a computer program

Estimate £10,000 - £15,000May 23, 2019
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New York, NY, USA
Auction Curated By:
Sophie Hopkins
Associate Director, Specialist, Manuscripts & Archives