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Did you know? 5 little-known facts about IT

Ada Lovelace

Today we welcome again Software Developer Aurelien Thieriot for a guest blog. After talking about Movies vs Life (IT edition), he's now decided to share with us some facts on IT that you might not know.

1. Ada Lovelace

Let's start with an easy one. Google recently dedicated a Doodle to her and she is quite famous on the programming scene. Who is the lady in this picture?

This is lady Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace and daughter of the poet Lord Byron, better known as Ada Lovelace. Born in 1815, she is believed to be the first programmer ever.

Ada Lovelace worked with Charles Babbage on the early mechanical computers (first on the Difference Engine, then on the unfinished Analytical Engine) and developed an algorithm to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers with the machine.

Analytical Engine by Babbage

The machine can be seen at the Science Museum (London)

Although Ada had a tormented childhood (among other things she was abandoned by her father Lord Byron and left by her mother to her grandmother’s care), she was a very clever woman and was taught mathematics early in her education, a domain in which she developed a keen interest and a considerable talent.

If you read the Wikipedia page, you will see that it even appears that Lord Byron felt disappointed to have a girl when he expected the baby to be a "glorious boy". This certainly sounds  ironic now, don’t you agree?

Every year in mid-October, an event celebrates the "Ada Lovelace Day", the goal of which is to increase the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and math.

Portrait of Grace Hopper

2. Grace Hopper

Grace Brewster Murray Hopper is another woman who had a great impact on computer science.

She was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I, a computer that was used during the last part of World War II (including by scientists from the Manhattan project,) and which was, interestingly, inspired by Babbage's Analytical Engine.

Grace is most famous for having invented the first known compiler for a computer programming language. Her work directly lead to the creation of COBOL, one the first high level programming languages still massively used today.

Sometimes referred to by the army as "Amazing Grace" or "Grandma COBOL", she possessed another very important skill in computer science: teaching;

The most important thing I've accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, 'Do you think we can do this?' I say, "Try it." And I back 'em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir 'em up at intervals so they don't forget to take chances
Grace Hooper's bug

Fun fact, Grace Hopper helped to bring the expression "debugging" to popularity when she once discovered a moth stuck in an electrical component.

3. Spacecrafts

Creating computers is hard, but sending them through space is even harder. The Mars Climate Orbiter probe is one of the projects people involved with would prefer to forget and would have preferred to have stayed in bed all day instead of launching it.

Mars Climate Orbiter during tests - photo by NASA

Imagine that you have to plan a big party with friends distributed across several countries. Translation wouldn't be the only issue you would face (you would be lucky if everyone shows up on time, for instance!).

The short story of that probe ends with her disintegrating into the Martian atmosphere… because of an error in conversion between United States units and Metric units (or to be precise, the absence thereof...). As one team of scientists developing a part of the embedded software made their calculations in a different unit than the other teams, this generated a deadly mistake on the final calculations for the orbital insertion maneuver.

I would advise you not to laugh though! Even if it's tempting. NASA is working with problems and machines of an incredible complexity and sending a satellite into space for years of travel is no walk in the park. There is no such thing as real-time control and the people who are doing the launch are unlikely to be the same as the ones who are doing the landing.

To counterbalance the miserable failure of the Mars Climate Orbiter, we can take a look at the incredible life of probes such as Voyager or New Horizon (and many more). For very long journeys, NASA engineers are able to harness the raw power of planets with a maneuver called Gravity Assist.Cassini's interplanet trajectory

Gravity assistance uses the relative movement and gravity of a planet in order to accelerate spacecrafts or redirect their path. Depending on how you enter and leave the gravitational orbit of a planet, one can alter the speed of a spacecraft (you can increase its speed by following the movement of the planet or decrease it by going against it).

Such planning - for years and years in advance - requires calculation of infinite precision and that has been used successfully a countless number of times.

Jef Raskin holding a Canon Cat model

4. Jef Raskin

Everyone knows Steve Jobs. You may even be reading this blog post through a device that he personally helped build. However, if he was a genius entrepreneur, his popularity shadows a huge number of technical professionals who worked the real magic behind Jobs’ ideas and who made his visions a reality.

One of these people is Jef Raskin. You won't hear his name often (apart maybe from Apple history books) but his contribution to Apple computers is invaluable.

Indeed, Raskin is the man who started the Macintosh project. He believed that the Apple II was too complex a machine  and he had very strong opinions on ergonomics and user interfaces. Ultimately though, the actual Macintosh computer was quite different from what Raskin first envisioned. Steve Jobs took over the project and merged Raskin's ideas with some of the Xerox PARC GUI concepts to make it what it became.

To have an idea of what Jef Raskin had in mind, you can read his book, The Humane Interface, and it should strike you to find out that some of Raskin’s ideas have now become the norm in modern operating systems such as those in mobile devices.

5. The Internet vs The Web

Tim Berners-Lee and Vint Cerf

This fun fact is undeniably the geekiest one so far, and you should think twice before starting that discussion at a party; you might look severely pedantic to uninitiated people.

The Web (or World Wide Web) and the Internet are NOT the same thing. They are two related yet different things.

It's a shocker, I know!

The Internet

The Internet is a massive network of networks, it’s the infrastructure that allows two computers to communicate together. Information is exchanged through the network by using different languages called protocols. Internet as we know it today originates from research and developments from the United States, the United Kingdom and France. Their respective work on ARPANET, NPL Network and CYCLADES helped to shape the standards we use today to send emails from our mobile phone or call our loved ones wherever they are.

The Web

The World Wide Web is a portion of the Internet; it is one of the protocols or languages you can use to exchange data across the Internet (generally using the HTTP/HTTPS protocols and the HTML format). The Web can be accessed by using a Browser such as Internet Explorer or Firefox and resources and documents can be found via their URLs or using Hypertext links. The Web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee (on the left in the picture above) at the CERN, in Switzerland. Even though the Web is primarily used to exchange text resources, it is the protocol we use today to watch cat videos online.

The confusion occurs because the Web is the main medium we all use to exchange information over the Internet network. But make no mistake, it is not the only one, far from it.

Emails, for example, are using a different protocol (SMTP) to travel through the network. When you are fighting another player on World of Warcraft or League of Legends, you are not using the Web but just another protocol on the Internet.

I hope you’ll have enjoyed these fun facts on IT. You may find them useful at your next pub quiz or to impress some friends!

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