Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist
by Christopher Hollings, Ursula Martin and Adrian Rice

First things first: I should state straight away that mathematics and I do *not* get on well. Which is a little odd, because part of my work involves being a finance officer! However, I can do this as I have lots of lovely computer programs to do the difficult work for me; so it’s not surprising, therefore, that I’m grateful to, and keen to learn about, people like Ada Lovelace who were in at the beginning of such things. Coincidentally, I watched an interesting BBC4 documentary re-run recently about Lovelace’s work; so I was very excited to see that the publishing arm of the Bodleian Library was bringing out this book and they’ve been kind enough to provide a review copy.

“The Making of a Computer Scientist” is a beautiful, lavishly illustrated hardback which looks not only at Lovelace’s life but also her mathematical achievements. There is a certain amount of controversy about her status in the scientific world; claims are often made that she produced the first computer program, whereas counter-claims describe her work as simply being a condensation of other works. Certainly, she published no books of research or great scientific discoveries – but that’s because of the world in which she grew up and the way that women were educated at the time.

Ada was born Augusta Ada Byron, daughter of the poet Lord and his wife Annabella Milbanke; her father left when she was one month old and she had minimal contact with him. Her upbringing and education fell to her mother, who was determined to keep the girl’s mind on logical, mathematical subjects so as to counteract any tendency to madness (not for nothing had Lord Byron been known as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”). However, as this book makes clear, women’s education at the time was not straightforward; Ada was reliant on a number of personal tutors, including Mary Somerville (one of the first members of the Royal Astronomical Society) and the mathematician Augustus De Morgan. But her most significant intellectual relationship was with Charles Babbage, inventor of the ‘Analytical Engine’, considered the first computer. Their relationship lasted until Ada’s early death, and the latter had significant input into Babbage’s work on his engine.

Lovelace’s most visible contribution was left in her translation from Italian of a paper by Luigi Menabrea, who had taken notes of talks given by Babbage in Turin; the latter asked Ada to add something of her own, and her appendices were longer than the actual paper itself… Within her notes to the work, she included a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers (don’t ask…) and it’s this which has led to her being considered the first computer programmer and her method as the world’s first computer program. Frankly, I’m not knowledgeable enough to make a judgement on that, but it’s fascinating.

The text of this book is in itself interesting enough, giving a concise outline of Lovelace’s life and work; however, where it really comes into its own is the wealth of visual material it presents, not only about Lovelace herself but also giving context to her life and times. The book is packed with reproductions of unpublished letters, notes and images from the Bodleian archives; paintings of Lovelace and her associates; pictures of contemporary events and also happenings that informed Lovelace’s life. It really is a lovely and informative book!

It’s always important to remember how many things were stacked up against Ada Lovelace, and her wish to learn, analyse and discover. As the authors point out:

Success for a woman in science in nineteenth-century Britain required a combination of many fortunate circumstances: access to education and books; talent and ambition, recognized and nurtured by herself and others; good health; support from husband and parents; and wealth and social standing. Women were unable to attend university, or to join scientific societies or to access scholarly libraries. A woman needed a competent governess and tutors, and then, as her interests matured, mentors to give her access to scientific meetings and papers, and to work with her as intellectual equals, offering criticism as well as flattery. She needed to reconcile her talent and ambition with widespread concerns, among women and men, that mathematics was not an appropriate or decorous activity for women, that women were incapable of serious mathematical work or that they were not strong enough to undertake it.

Against this background, Lovelace’s achievements are all the more impressive and inspirational; although the class element has to be taken into account, as Ada had a husband and three children. If she hadn’t been rich, she wouldn’t have had the luxury of following her intellectual pursuits, having instead to give all her energies to her family.

However, it’s satisfying to note how highly she was regarded by the men she worked amongst. They appreciated her keen intelligence, perhaps acknowledging that as Ada had not been trained like a man in traditional ways of thinking she was therefore better placed to make instinctive leaps of reasoning. Her rigorous mind was often able to spot errors in the work of others (in particular an error of Babbage’s which she spotted and corrected) and it seems her contemporaries recognised a tendency in her to take the land of mathematics in new directions: “the way to enlarge the settled country has not been by keeping within it, but by making voyages of discovery”.

Time and time again, the authors highlight something Ada proposed and discovered, pointing out that she was right and ahead of her time. I confess that as the book progressed and Ada’s mathematical knowledge grew, I lost track of the various formulae explained (they were never my strong point…). Nevertheless, I can appreciate her remarkable achievements, stand in awe of how ahead of her time she was and lament the fact she died so young. If, like me, your maths is extremely basic (ahem), I wouldn’t shy away from approaching this book; it’s a beautiful and very readable account of a pioneering woman who made a notable contribution to science – highly recommended!

(Book kindly provided by the publishers via Emma O’Bryen – for which many thanks!)

Advertisements