In the 19th century’s world of aristocratic dilettantes there are a few greats that stand out, but until more recently one of those visionaries was commonly overlooked. Ada Lovelace may very well have conceived of computer science and she is often credited as the first person to write a computer program.
Nearly 200 years later, Ada is receiving credit, and fame, for her work. Indeed, Ada has become a figurehead for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). This book is a long-awaited biography for Ada, whose ideas could have changed the world had the world allowed her the opportunity.
Why is this on our bookshelf?
In a world just coming to grips with the power of steam engines is a theoretical device called the Analytical Engine. This device uses punch cards to input variables and a sequence of operations on those variables. Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Analytical Engine, envisions the device would assist the science of Mathematics. It would, for example, be able to perform mathematical operations on infinite numbers without losing precision.
Ada Lovelace thinks this device can do a lot more than simple mathematical calculations. She makes a distinction between mathematics and the science of operations. Essinger makes the case that this distinction is the basis of modern computer science.
Generally though, controversy (there is a lot less these days) on Ada’s place in history centers on an Algorithm she wrote for the Analytical Engine that would generate Bernoulli numbers. Many claim this to be the first computer program though untestable because the Analytical Engine was never built. Essinger leaves that decision up to the reader, but outlines a clear case that Ada was a brilliant mind in the field of computer science—a discipline that would not exist for another 100 years.
Rating (3 stars)
Queen Victoria’s England happened nearly 200 years ago. Ada’s world is dramatically different and although Ada herself was visionary, I had difficulty relating to Essinger’s depiction of Ada’s surroundings, her lifestyle, and her compatriots.
My desire for a more engaging narrative is offset by the readily apparent research Essinger has done. It would seem that every critic of Ada’s genius has been addressed and every grammatical or factual misstep found in her communications has been explained. Essinger describes her life with obvious respect, perhaps admiration, but also with a careful sense of journalistic objectivity and precision.
Ada’s Algorithm would be ideal for a STEM-infused High School History course. It provides insight into not only Ada, but also into Charles Babbage’s scientific accomplishments and the industry of the time. Ada Lovelace was part of England’s Aristocratic society and therefore had interactions with much of Western Europe’s well-to-do.
Read this book:
If you don’t believe Ada Lovelace wrote the first computer program. Or if you’re into steampunk, roleplaying seriously intelligent Victorian English aristocracy, or computer science.
Don't Read this book:
If you’ve already read A Female Genius: How Ada Lovelace Started the Computer Age which is the UK version of this book also written by Essinger.
Once you're done, do this:
Read Ada’s most notable work, including her Algorithm: http://www.fourmilab.ch/babbage/sketch.html