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The Internet Is a Miracle We All Take for Granted

Blog Post | Science & Technology

The Internet Is a Miracle We All Take for Granted

Between 1990 and 2016, internet access rose from 0 to 46 percent of the world's population.

Children enjoying using the internet. Individuals using the internet (% of the population).

“If someone was ready to fork over $1 million to you to stop using the Internet – forever – would you do it?” Economics professor W. Michael Cox, who asked that question of his students, received an unambiguous reply. “You couldn’t pay me enough,” they answered. That answer speaks to just how priceless the internet has become, and how encouraging it is to see it spreading throughout the world, including to the poorest countries.

The internet’s ubiquity makes summarising its various uses a pretty daunting task. To start with, it is the repository of all human knowledge. Search engines provide answers to virtually all questions. Online videos explain billions of different topics and procedures. Users can take online courses and communicate with experts. New books are easily accessible in digital and audio forms, while old books are being digitised en masse. Publishing and broadcasting have been democratised. People can share their ideas easily and, if need be, anonymously.

Then there are the huge benefits to human communication. Letters that used to take weeks or months to arrive have been superseded by email and social media apps that make written contact instantaneous and practically cost-free. International phone calls were once very expensive. Today, video chats allow for a face-to-face conversation with anyone, anywhere. In the future, it may even be possible to download the contents of human brains onto a computer, thus enabling communication with people from beyond the grave.

The internet is also a great productivity enhancer. Online banking allows people conveniently to view their balances, pay their bills and make other transactions. Online shopping allows buyers to access most goods and services, compare their prices and read product reviews. Sellers can reach more people than could ever fit in a retail store. Research shows that much of US growth since the mid-1990s has been driven by internet-induced efficiency gains among large retailers, such as Walmart and, later, Amazon.

Our professional lives are more flexible too, with ever more of us able to work from home, avoiding an often costly and time-consuming commute. Online hiring gives employers easy access to a worldwide talent pool.

Of course, like all technologies, the internet can be used for nefarious purposes – just think of all those Nigerian email scams and “fake news” – but it is also an excellent resource for discovering the reputational standing of local doctors, lawyers, educators and restaurants.

As well as making people’s lives infinitely more convenient, the internet is a tool of humanitarian assistance and rising global consciousness. It makes it easier to raise, remit and donate money. That’s especially important during emergencies, such as wars and natural disasters, when speedy response from the donor community is necessary. And, it can alert the public to human rights abuses, such as the attempted ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority in Burma.

It has also been a boon for popular entertainment, allowing more people than ever to access movies, shows, concerts and live events from the comfort of their living rooms. It’s easy to forget there was once a time when the eccentric billionaire and insomniac Howard Hughes bought a local TV station just so he could watch his favourite movies. The station then broadcast films from a list that Hughes pre-approved. Today, almost everyone has access to thousands of titles on Netflix.

Put plainly, in today’s world, access to the internet is essential for full economic and political participation, as well as intellectual growth and social interaction.

Thankfully, internet use is growing rapidly. Between 1990 and 2016, the share of the world’s population with access to the internet rose from zero to 46 per cent. It is expected to rise to 52 per cent by 2020. In 2016, the highest number of internet users was in North America (78 per cent) and the lowest was in sub-Saharan Africa (20 per cent). Those numbers are likely to increase, because the cost of internet “transit price” or sending data from one computer to another fell from $1,200 per megabyte per second (Mbps) in 1998 to $0.63 in 2015. In other words, the internet transit price is heading toward zero.

And plans are afoot to bring the internet to some of the poorest people in the world. Currently, traffic flows through expensive fiber optic cables. Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are working on a system of internet satellites designed to provide low-cost internet service from Earth’s orbit. Google, in the meantime, wants to launch high-altitude internet balloons to the stratosphere, where they will catch a ride on wind currents to their destinations in the developing world.

The internet is now so ingrained in most of our lives that it’s easy to forget just how miraculous a technology it is. The fact this miracle is available to more and more of humanity is a cause for huge celebration.

This first appeared in CapX.

Blog Post | Human Freedom

Iranians Could Have Internet Freedom—If the U.N. Got Out of the Way

The biggest obstacle to bringing internet freedom to Iran is not the practical but rather the arbitrary.

Summary: Iran’s authoritarian regime severely restricts internet freedom. However, many Iranians rely on the internet to express their dissent and demand their rights. This article argues that the U.N. should stop giving Iran a seat at the table of internet governance and instead support private sector initiatives that can bypass censorship and surveillance.

On September 16, 2022, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, was arrested by members of the Iranian Morality Police as she exited a Tehran Metro station. Her alleged crime: allowing a few strands of her thick black hair to slip through her hijab. After three days in a detention center, Ms. Amini was transferred to a hospital and subsequently pronounced dead. While the exact circumstances of her death remain unclear, many believe she was murdered by Iranian authorities.

In a country where extrajudicial killings are the norm and government abuse of citizens is widespread, Amini’s death touched a nerve. Since then, the Iranian government has been brutal in its crackdown against protestors. Given that independent media is severely limited in Iran, exact death tolls are not available. Nevertheless, the human cost has been significant, with Amnesty International reporting that at least 82 protesters and bystanders were killed on September 30 alone in clashes with state police. Some commentators have downplayed the role of the internet in anti-authoritarian protest movements, stating that the role of social media has been overstated. Such analysis ignores the various uses of the internet, as well as changes in Iranian society. The story of internet access in Iran is not a story of the network’s failures. Rather, it is the story of arbitrary regulations hampering the progress of the private sector—and it should serve as a stark warning to Americans. 

In the summer of 2009, mass protests broke out across Iran in response to allegations that the presidential elections were rigged in favor of the hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Millions mobilized in what became known as the Green Movement. While the protests were eventually suppressed by the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, the internet played an important role in amassing support for the movement. Images of the shooting of 26-year-old protestor Neda Agha-Soltan circulated heavily on Twitter, inspiring others to join the protests. Protestors’ mutilated bodies served not to dissuade participants but instead compelled others to join, fueling a cycle of protest that Agha-Soltan’s killing had started. At the time, fewer than one million Iranians had access to smartphones. Thus, while the internet was important to the protest movements, its full potentially was hardly tapped. Yet the government sensed the power of the internet and instated a number of measures to disrupt internet freedom, including imposing severe content restrictions, hacking dissident websites, and abducting the operators of said websites.

Today, the role of the internet cannot be ignored. As of 2020, the share of Iranians who used the internet was estimated to be 84 percent—a dramatic increase from 2009, when internet penetration there stood at 14 percent. As the protests have evolved, the Iranian government has transitioned from a policy of intermittent internet stoppages to a complete shutdown. A common tactic of the regime is to leverage the ethnic and regional diversity of Iran. For example, in the 2011 anti-government protests, rural youths were brought to urban centers to savage protestors. The internet has served to disrupt that pattern and enable connections between the Baloch minority, the Kurdish minority, and ethnic Persians. Despite the significant economic and social impacts of the internet shutdown, the regime’s actions should come as no surprise to observers of Iran. Faced with the alternatives of ceding power or attempting to improve the lives of Iranians, Ali Khamenei and his sycophants have instead chosen to do neither. 

On September 23, 2022, the U.S government eased sanctions on Iran’s import of communication technologies, which theoretically would aid Iranian internet access. The effect has been minimal because these devices cannot operate without support infrastructure, such as the cellular towers that dot the United States. 

As is often the case, the private sector has stepped into the void. In September, Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors, offered to send his Starlink system to Iran. Starlink allows users to connect to the global internet through the use of a transmission system between low-flying satellites and a receiver. Because Starlink satellites orbit at a lower altitude than other communications satellites, the infrastructure required to receive their transmissions (and by extension to connect to the global internet) is much less extensive. Unlike conventional receivers, these receivers are highly mobile, weighing only around 15 pounds. Although the receivers must be placed in an open space to receive transmissions, this would present a relatively small challenge in a country as vast as Iran (compared with, say, North Korea). Although thousands of receivers would need to be smuggled into Iran for Starlink to be operational, the cost would be relatively minor, and Musk has signaled that he is open to financing the operation. 

Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle to bringing internet freedom to Iran is not the practical but rather the arbitrary. If Starlink were to be imported to Iran, Musk could face punishment from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a regulatory body of the United Nations. The ITU has strong backing from the Chinese Communist Party and other repressive states. According to ITU policy, if a private company provides internet to a country independent of regulations established by that country, the company exposes itself to punitive action from the ITU. Thus, the fact that the U.S. government has eased its own sanctions on Iranian telecommunications equipment has no effect on ITU regulations. 

This is a stinging indictment of the United Nations. Going forward, the United States should reconsider whether the United Nations serves to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights,” as is stated in its charter, or is simply another bureaucracy that works to separate people from their inalienable rights. I know what my answer is.

Blog Post | Science & Technology

Centers of Progress, Pt. 40: San Francisco (Digital Revolution)

The innovations developed in San Francisco have transformed how we work, communicate, and learn.

Today marks the 40th installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org called Centers of Progress. Where does progress happen? The story of civilization is in many ways the story of the city. It is the city that has helped to create and define the modern world. This biweekly column will give a short overview of urban centers that were the sites of pivotal advances in culture, economics, politics, technology, etc.

Our 40th Center of Progress is San Francisco during the digital revolution, when entrepreneurs founded several major technology companies in the area. The southern portion of the broader San Francisco Bay Area earned the metonym “Silicon Valley” because of the high-technology hub’s association with the silicon transistor, used in all modern microprocessors. A microprocessor is the central unit or engine of a computer system, fabricated on a single chip.

Humanity has long strived to develop tools to improve our survival odds and make our lives easier, more productive, and more enjoyable. In the long history of inventions that have made a difference in the average person’s daily life, digital technology, with its innumerable applications, stands out as one of the most significant innovations of the modern age.

Today the San Francisco Bay Area remains best known for its association with the technology sector. With its iconic Victorian houses, sharply sloping hills, trolleys, fog, Chinatown (which bills itself as the oldest and largest one outside Asia), and of course the Golden Gate Bridge, the city of San Francisco is famous for its distinctive views. As Encyclopedia Britannica notes, “San Francisco holds a secure place in the United States’ romantic dream of itself—a cool, elegant, handsome, worldly seaport whose steep streets offer breathtaking views of one of the world’s greatest bays.” Attempts to preserve the city’s appearance have contributed to tight restrictions on new construction. Perhaps relatedly, the city is one of the most expensive in the United States and suffers from a housing affordability crisis. San Francisco has in recent years struggled with widespread homelessness and related drug overdose deaths and crime. With both the country’s highest concentration of billionaires, thanks to the digital technology industry, and the ubiquitous presence of unhoused people, San Francisco is a city of extremes.

Today’s densely populated metropolis was once a landscape of sand dunes. In 1769, the first documented sighting of the San Francisco Bay was recorded by a scouting party led by the Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portolá (1716–1786). In 1776, European settlement of the area began, led by the Spanish missionary Francisco Palóu (1723–1789) and expeditionary José Joaquín Moraga (1745–1785). The latter is the namesake of San José, a city on the southern shore of San Francisco Bay, about 50 miles from San Francisco but located within the San Francisco Bay Area and the San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland Combined Statistical Area. San Francisco was the northernmost outpost of the Spanish Empire in North America and later the northernmost settlement in Mexico after that country’s independence. But the city remained relatively small and unknown.

In 1846, during the Mexican-American War, the United States captured the San Francisco area, although Mexico did not formally cede California until the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. At that time, San Francisco only had about 900 residents. That number grew rapidly during the California Gold Rush (1848–1855), when the discovery of gold turned the quiet village into a bustling boomtown of tens of thousands by the end of the period. Development of the city’s port led to further growth and helped the area become a hub in the early radio and telegraph industries, foreshadowing the city’s role as a leader in technology.

In 1906, three-quarters of the city was destroyed in a devastating earthquake and related fire caused by a gas line rupturing in the quake. The city rebuilt from the destruction and continued its growth, along with the broader Bay Area. In 1909, San Jose became the home of one of the first radio stations in the country. In the 1930s, the Golden Gate Bridge became a part of San Francisco’s skyline, and the city’s storied Alcatraz maximum security prison opened, holding famous prisoners such as the Prohibition-era gangster Al Capone (1899–1947). In 1939, in Palo Alto, just over 30 miles south of San Francisco, William Hewlett (1913–2001) and David Packard (1912–1996) founded a company that made oscilloscopes – laboratory instruments that display electronic signals as waves. They named the company Hewlett-Packard. During World War II, the company shifted to making radar and artillery technology. That field soon became linked to computing. That is because researchers at the University of Pennsylvania created a new tool to calculate artillery firing tables, among other tasks: the first general-use digital computer.

“Computer” was once a job title for a person who performed calculations. The first machine computer, named Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC, debuted in 1945. It cost about $500,000, or nearly $8 million in 2022 dollars, measured 8 feet tall and 80 feet long, weighed 30 tons, and needed constant maintenance to replace its fragile vacuum tubes. Back when computers were the size of a room and required many people to operate them, they also had about 13 times less power than a modern pocket-sized smartphone that costs about 17,000 times less.

San Francisco and Silicon Valley’s greatest claim to fame came with the dawn of more convenient and powerful digital technology. In 1956, the inventor William Shockley (1910–1989) moved from the East Coast to Mountain View, a city on the San Francisco Bay located about 40 miles south of San Francisco, to live closer to his ailing mother. She still lived in his childhood home of Palo Alto. That year he won the Nobel Prize in physics along with engineer John Bardeen (1908–1991) and physicist Walter Houser Brattain (1902–1987). The prize honored them for coinventing the first working semiconductor almost a decade earlier, in 1947, at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey.

After moving to California, Shockley founded Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, the first company to make transistors and computer processors out of silicon—earlier versions used germanium, which cannot handle high temperatures. His work provided the basis for many further electronic developments. Also in 1956, IBM’s San Jose labs invented the hard-disk drive. That same year, Harry Huskey (1916–2017), a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, some 14 miles from San Francisco, designed Bendix’s first digital computer, or the G-15.

Shockley had an abrasive personality and later became a controversial figure due to his vocal fringe views related to eugenics and mass sterilization. In 1957, eight of Shockley’s employees left over disagreements with Shockley to start their own enterprise together with investor Sherman Fairchild (1896–1971). They named it Fairchild Semiconductors. Shockley called them “the Traitorous Eight.” In the 1960s, Fairchild Semiconductors made many of the computer components for the Apollo space program directed from Houston, our previous Center of Progress. In 1968, two of the “Traitorous Eight,” Gordon Moore (b. 1929) and Robert Noyce (1927–1990), the latter of whom earned the nickname “the Mayor of Silicon Valley,” left Fairchild to start a new company in Santa Clara, about 50 miles southeast of San Francisco. They named it Intel. Moore remains well-known as the creator of Moore’s Law. It was he who predicted in 1965 that the processing power of computers would double every 18 months.

In 1969, the Stanford Research Institute at Stanford University, some 35 miles southeast of San Francisco, became one of the four “nodes” of Advanced Research Projects Agency Network. ARPANET was a research project that would one day become the internet. In 1970, Xerox opened the PARC laboratory in Palo Alto, which would go on to invent ethernet computing and graphic user interfaces. In 1971, journalist Don Hoefler (1922–1986) published a three-part report on the burgeoning computer industry in the southern San Francisco Bay Area that popularized the term “Silicon Valley.” The pace of technological change picked up with the invention of microprocessors that same year.

Just as the 19th-century Gold Rush once attracted fortune seekers, the promise of potential profit and the excitement of new possibilities offered by digital technology drew entrepreneurs and researchers to the San Francisco Bay Area. In the 1970s, companies such as Atari, Apple, and Oracle were all founded in the area. By the 1980s, the San Francisco Bay Area was the undisputed capital of digital technology. (Some consider the years from 1985 to 2000 to constitute the golden era of Silicon Valley, when legendary entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs (1955–2011) were active there.) San Francisco suffered another devastating earthquake in 1989, but that was accompanied by a relatively small death toll. In the 1990s, companies founded in the San Francisco Bay Area included eBay, Yahoo!, PayPal, and Google. The following decade, Facebook and Tesla joined them. As these companies created value for their customers and achieved commercial success, fortunes were made, and the San Francisco Bay Area grew wealthier. That was particularly true of San Francisco.

While many of the important events of the digital revolution took place across a range of cities in the San Francisco Bay Area, San Francisco itself was also home to the founding of several significant technology companies. Between 1995 and 2015, major companies founded in or relocated to San Francisco included Airbnb, Craigslist, Coinbase, DocuSign, DoorDash, Dropbox, Eventbrite, Fitbit, Flickr, GitHub, Grammarly, Instacart, Instagram, Lyft, Niantic, OpenTable, Pinterest, Reddit, Salesforce, Slack, TaskRabbit, Twitter, Uber, WordPress, and Yelp.

San Francisco helped create social media and the so-called sharing economy that offers many workers increased flexibility. By streamlining the process of such things as grocery deliveries, restaurant reservations, vacation home rentals, ride-hailing services, second-hand sales, cryptocurrency purchases, and work group chats, enterprises based in San Francisco have made countless transactions and interactions far more convenient.

New technologies often present challenges as well as benefits, and the innovations of San Francisco along with Silicon Valley are certainly no exception. Concerns about data privacy, cyberbullying, social media addiction, and challenges related to content moderation of online speech are just some of the issues attracting debate today that relate to digital technology. But there is no going back to a world without computers, and most would agree that the immense gains from digital technology outweigh the various dilemmas posed by it.

San Francisco
San Francisco from the bay

Practically everyone with access to a computer or smartphone has direct experience benefiting from the products of several San Francisco companies, and the broader San Francisco Bay Area played a role in the very creation of the internet and modern computers. It is difficult to summarize all the ways that computers, tablets, and smartphones have forever changed how humanity works, communicates, learns, seeks entertainment, and more. There is little doubt that San Francisco has been one of the most innovative and enterprising cities on Earth, helping to define the rise of the digital age that transformed the world. For these reasons, San Francisco is our 40th Center of Progress.

Blog Post | Computing

Heroes of Progress, Pt. 49: Babbage and Lovelace

Introducing the two 19th-century English mathematicians who pioneered early computing, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace.

Today marks the 49th installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org titled Heroes of Progress. This bi-weekly column provides a short introduction to heroes who have made an extraordinary contribution to the well-being of humanity. You can find the 48th part of this series here.

This week, our heroes are Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace—two 19th century English mathematicians and pioneers of early computing. Babbage is often called “The Father of Computing” for conceiving the first automatic digital computer. Building on Babbage’s work, Lovelace was the first person to recognize that computers could have applications beyond pure calculation. She has been dubbed the “first computer programmer” for creating the first algorithm for Babbage’s machine. Babbage and Lovelace’s work laid the groundwork for modern-day computers. Without their contributions, much of the technology we have today would likely not exist.

Charles Babbage was born on December 26, 1791, in London, England. His father was a successful banker and Babbage grew up in affluence. As a child, Babbage attended several of England’s top private schools. His father ensured that Babbage had many tutors to assist with the latter’s education. As a teenager, Babbage joined the Holmwood Academy in Middlesex, England. The academy’s large library helped Babbage develop a passion for mathematics. In 1810, Babbage began studying mathematics at the University of Cambridge.

Before arriving at Cambridge, Babbage had already learned much of contemporary mathematics and was disappointed by the level of mathematics being taught at the university. In 1812, Babbage and several friends created the “Analytical Society,” which aimed to introduce new developments in mathematics that were occurring elsewhere in Europe to England.

Babbage’s reputation as a mathematical genius quickly developed. By 1815, he had left Cambridge and begun lecturing on astronomy at the Royal Institution. The following year, he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. Despite several successful lectures at the Royal Institution, Babbage struggled to find a full-time position at a university. Throughout early adulthood, therefore, he had to rely on financial support from his father. In 1820, Babbage was instrumental in creating the Royal Astronomical Society, which aimed to reduce astronomical calculations into a more standard form.

In the early 19th century, mathematical tables (lists of numbers showing the results of  calculations) were central to engineering, astronomy, navigation, and science. However, at the time, all the calculations in the mathematical tables were done by humans and mistakes were commonplace. Given this problem, Babbage wondered if he could create a machine to mechanize the calculation process.

In 1822, in a paper to the Royal Astronomical Society, Babbage outlined his idea for creating a machine that could automatically calculate the values needed in astronomical and mathematical tables. The following year, Babbage was successful in obtaining a government grant to build a machine that would be able to automatically calculate a series of values of up to twenty decimal places, dubbed the “Difference Engine.”

In 1828, Babbage became the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University. He was largely inattentive to his teaching responsibilities and spent most of his time writing papers and working on the Difference Engine. In 1832, Babbage and his engineer Joseph Clement produced a small working model of the Difference Engine. The following year, plans to build a larger, full scale engine were scrapped, when Babbage began to turn his attention to another project.

In the mid-1830s, Babbage started to develop plans for what he called the “Analytical Engine,” which would become the forerunner to the modern digital computer. Whereas the Difference Engine was designed for mechanized arithmetic (essentially an early calculator only capable of addition), the Analytical Engine would be able to perform any arithmetical operation by inputting instructions from punched cards—a stiff bit of paper that can contain data through the presence or absence of holes in a predefined position. The punched cards would be able to deliver instructions to the mechanical calculator as well as store the results of the computer’s calculations.

Like modern computers, the design of the Analytical Engine had both the data and program memory separated. The control unit could make conditional jumps, separate input and output units, and its general operation was instruction-based. Babbage initially envisioned the Analytical Engine as having applications only relating to pure calculation. That soon changed thanks to the work of Ada Lovelace.

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (née Byron) was born on December 10, 1815, in London, England. Lovelace was the only legitimate child of the poet and Member of the House of Lords, Lord Byron and the mathematician Anne Isabella Byron. However, just a month after her birth, Byron separated from Lovelace’s mother and left England. Eight years later he died from disease while fighting on the Greek side during the Greek War of Independence.

Throughout her early life, Lovelace’s mother raised Ada on a strict regimen of science, logic, and mathematics. Although frequently ill and, aged fourteen, bedridden for nearly a year, Lovelace was fascinated by machines. As a child, she would often design fanciful boats and flying machines.

As a teenager, Lovelace honed her mathematical skills and quickly became acquainted with many of the top intellectuals of the day. In 1833, Lovelace’s tutor, Mary Somerville, introduced the former to Charles Babbage. The pair quickly became friends. Lovelace was fascinated with Babbage’s plans for the Analytical Engine and Babbage was so impressed with Lovelace’s mathematical ability that he once described her as “The Enchantress of Numbers.”

In 1840, Babbage visited the University of Turin to give a seminar on his Analytical Engine. Luigi Menabrea, an Italian engineer and future Prime Minister of Italy, attended Babbage’s seminar and transcribed it into French. In 1842, Lovelace spent nine months translating Menabrea’s article into English. She added her own detailed notes that ended up being three times longer than the original article.

Published in 1843, Lovelace’s notes described the differences between the Analytical Engine and previous calculating machines—mainly the former’s ability to be programmed to solve any mathematical problem. Lovelace’s notes also included a new algorithm for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers (a sequence of rational numbers that are common in number theory). Given that Lovelace’s algorithm was the first to be created specifically for use on a computer, Lovelace thus became the world’s first computer programmer.

Whereas Babbage designed the Analytical Engine for purely mathematical purposes, Lovelace was the first person to see potential use of computers that went far beyond number-crunching. Lovelace realized that the numbers within the computer could be used to represent other entities, such as letters or musical notes. Consequently, she also prefigured many of the concepts associated with modern computers, including software and subroutines.

The Analytical Engine was never actually built in Babbage’s or Lovelace’s lifetime. However, the lack of construction was due to funding problems and personality clashes between Babbage and potential donors, rather than because of any design flaws.

Throughout the remainder of his life, Babbage dabbled in many different fields. Several times, he attempted to become a Member of Parliament. He wrote several books, including one on political economy that explored the commercial advantages of the division of labor. He was fundamental in establishing the English postal system. He also invented an early type of speedometer and the locomotive cowcatcher (i.e., the metal frame that attached to the front of trains to clear the track of obstacles). On October 18, 1871, Babbage died at his home in London. He was 79 years old.

After her work translating Babbage’s lecture, Lovelace began working on several different projects, including one that involved creating a mathematical model for how the brain creates thoughts and nerves—although she never achieved that objective. On November 27, 1852, Lovelace died from uterine cancer. She was just 36 years old.

During his lifetime, Babbage declined both a knighthood and a baronetcy. In 1824, he received the Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society “for his invention of an engine for calculating mathematical and astronomical tables.” Since their deaths, many buildings, schools, university departments and awards have been named in Babbage’s and Lovelace’s honor.

Thanks to the work of Babbage and Lovelace, the field of computation was changed forever. Without Babbage’s work, the world’s first automatic digital computer wouldn’t have been conceived when it was. Likewise, many of the main elements that modern computers use today would likely have not been developed until much later. Without Lovelace, it may have taken humanity much longer to realize that computers could be used for more than just mathematical calculations. Together, Babbage and Lovelace laid the groundwork for modern-day computing, which is used by billions of people across the world and underpins much of our progress today. For these reasons, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace are our 49th Heroes of Progress.