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Running to 944 lots in all, the September 18-19 auction at Sotheby’s (25/20/12.9% buyer’s premium) was perhaps too much of a good thing, but though a third of the lots were left unsold, a great many made excellent prices. Overall the lots sold raised £3.27m.

The larger section of the sale (700 lots) focused on works from the period 1180-1813, and within that there was a special 15-lot section called ‘Galileo and his Compass’ that had its own introductory essay. As expected, one outshone all others in price terms.

This was a presentation copy of the Difesa… contro alle calumnie & imposture di Baldessar Capra, Galileo’s 1607 attack on a rival who had laid claim to his invention of the compasso, a multi-purpose calculating instrument, and even plagiarised a manual that Galileo had published to explain its use.

Inscribed for Girolamo Cappello, a Venetian diplomat, senator and administrator of Padua university, it sold at a record £350,000.

A copy of Galileo’s instruction manual, issued in Padua in 1606, and his first published work set another record at £130,000.

Modestly estimated at £6000- 8000 but sold at £60,000 in the smaller, ‘Babbage to Turing’ section of the Erwin Tomash library was a copy of Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage…, a work that among its explanatory notes contains what are essentially the first computer programmes.

However, it was in a July 20 sale in the Cirencester salerooms of Moore Allen & Innocent (20% buyer’s premium) that a record bid of £95,000 was taken on this famously rare work in the history of computing. An 1843 offprint from a volume of ‘Scientific Memoirs’ published the previous year, the Sketch… is a translation, with notes, that Byron’s daughter, Augusta Ada King, Countess Lovelace, made of a paper by Luigi Federico Menabrea.

A military engineer, mathematician and future Prime Minister of Italy, Menabrea had attended an 1840 seminar at the University of Turin at which plans for an Analytical Engine had been unveiled by Babbage who later urged Lady Lovelace to translate the report into English.

It is, however, Ada’s explanatory notes, about three times the length of the original work, that are the key to its fame.

Lovelace’s contribution

Lady Lovelace had struck up a friendship with Babbage after learning of his automatic mechanical calculator, the Difference Engine, and is credited with being the first person to recognise that the Analytical Engine had applications beyond pure calculation.

She 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 as the first ‘computer programmer’.

The only hint as to the identity of the works translator and anotator appears on the last page in the initials A.L.L. The Cirencester copy bears the name ‘Lady Lovelace’ on the title page, under the line that modestly reads “with notes by the translator”.

This and other manuscript annotations have been attributed to its original owner, the physician and philanthropist Dr William King, who was a friend and adviser to Lady Lovelace.

More on the Tomash sale in a future issue.