Rare book by world's first computer programmer sells for £95,000

23rd July 2018

A rare book by the Victorian woman renowned as the world's first computer programmer has sold at auction for £95,000.

A Cotswolds book dealer acting on behalf of an anonymous buyer successfully bid for 'Sketch of the Analytical Engine by by L.F. Menabrea with notes by Ada Lovelace' – one of only six known copies of the book – at Moore Allen & Innocent's selected antiques sale on Friday (July 20).

The book carried an estimate of £40,000 to £60,000. Before the auction, offers around the mid-estimate had been received. Auctioneer Philip Allwood advised the vendor that it would make much more at auction. With commission, the sale total was £114,000.

Philip described the lot as "the first separate edition of arguably the most important paper in the history of digital computing before modern times" and "an extremely rare piece."

Two or three serious bidders in the room were thought to be acting on behalf of clients from around the world.

Ada Lovelace was the only legitimate child of Lord Byron. But while he set out to make himself 'mad, bad, and dangerous to know' his daughter took a different path – as one of the world's first computer geeks.

A keen mathematician, Lady Lovelace struck up a friendship with Charles Babbage over his automatic mechanical calculator, the Difference Engine.

She then worked with Babbage on his follow-up, the Analytical Engine. She was the first person to recognise that the machine had applications beyond pure calculation, and published the first algorithm intended to be carried out by such a machine.

As a result, she is regarded as the first person to recognise the full potential of a 'computing machine' and the first 'computer programmer'.

After eight years of work, Charles Babbage unveiled his plans for the Analytical Engine at a seminar at the University of Turin in 1840.

Attending the seminar was Italian military engineer and mathematician L.F. Menabrea, who went on to serve as the country's Prime Minister.

Menabrea reported the presentation the following year in an obscure Swiss publication, and Babbage urged Lady Lovelace to translate the report into English.

She did so, but added her own explanatory notes, which were substantially longer than Menabrea's original article and included what many consider to be the first computer program — an algorithm designed to be carried out by the machine.

The resulting work was published in 1843 as 'Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage Esq by L.F. Menabrea of Turin, officer of the Military Engineers, with notes by the translator'.

At the time of publication, the identity of 'the translator' remained a secret. It was not until 1848 – four years before her untimely death at the age of 36 – that Lady Lovelace was credited.

The Cirencester copy was signed 'Lady Lovelace' on the title page of the book, under the line 'with notes by the translator'.

Additional handwritten notes on the flyleaf were attributed to physician and philanthropist Dr William King, a friend and advisor of Lady Lovelace, who was presumed to be the original owner of the book.

There are only six known copies of the book, with two being owned by Harvard University, which counts Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Facebook's creator Mark Zuckerberg among its alumni.

Elsewhere in the auction, three pictures by the Indian artist Jamini Roy (1887-1972) sold for a total of £24,500. A gouache on paper picture of Krishna made £9,500, a similar study of Radha made £9,000, and a study of a horse achieved £6,000. The pictures were purchased by an Indian bidder.

More repatriated works included a Chinese bronze censer, which sold for £4,600, a 19th Century Chinese tea caddy, which made £2,500, and a Chinese Kangxi blue and white ginger jar, which achieved £2,000. The antiques are on their way back to the Orient.

In the furniture section, a mid 18th Century burr elm bombé chest sold for £6,500, while a George III mahogany framed Gainsborough type open arm chair made £3,600 and a George III mahogany wine cooler far exceeded its £300 to £500 estimate to sell for £3,000.

And one of the biggest success stories of the day was an early vase by Art Nouveau pioneer Émile Gallé, which was identified by valuer Piers Critchlow during a house clearance, where it was perched precariously on top of a pile of junk.

"The vase was precariously balanced, unwrapped, on top of a pile of other household objects. The vendor didn't know what she had," said Piers, whose attention was drawn to the vase by its enamelled decoration of crickets and its gilded and enamelled handles.

A signature to the bottom of the vase confirmed it was crafted by Émile Gallé. Put into the sale with an estimate of £500 to £800, the vase went on to achieve £1,400.

In total, around £250,000