A pioneering mathematical female – @BodPublishing


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!)


“A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library” (Shelby Foote) @BodPublishing


A Library Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey

It probably wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that some of the most popular books amongst book bloggers are actually books about books! And to take that a bit further, who would argue that the next best thing to a book about books must surely be a book about libraries? 🙂 Authors like Alberto Manguel and Borges have of course written extensively and lyrically about libraries (real and imagined), and so this small and unassuming, but very pretty, volume might seem to be a more modest addition to the canon of works about libraries. However, what’s that old saying about never judging a book by its cover….?

“A Library Miscellany” has just been issued by Bodleian Library Publishing (who were kind enough to provide a review copy), and this unpretentious book is actually filled with riches on the stories of the libraries we love. “Miscellany” is an apt word here, as the book is arranged in bite-sized chunks covering such fascinating topics as “Lighting a Library” (hint: avoid naked flames…). “Some Fictional Libraries of Note”, Library Philanthropists, cataloguing methods, classification methods, statistics on type of books borrowed, number of books borrowed, largest libraries, oldest libraries, busiest libraries – the list is seemingly endless, and it’s all captivating for anyone who loves books and where they live…

Trinity Library, Dublin

For someone who loves the institutions and thought she knew quite a lot about them, I actually learned a lot from the book! For example, did you know that there was a specific type of handwriting librarians had to learn called ‘Library hand’? And that loose leaf card catalogues were invented in France in the aftermath of the Revolution? Or that the Vatican had a secret library? I could go on and on, as the book is full of wonderful nuggets as well as paragraphs on particular library treasures or library philanthropists or famous librarians (yes, my beloved Larkin gets a mention).

“A Short History of Public Libraries” was revealing; and the fact that philosopher David Hume was once a librarian was news to me too. I was also stunned to read about UNESCO’s World Digital Library, which I have somehow managed to miss and which has turned into a bit of a rabbit-hole I’m struggling to get out of at the moment, as it’s eminently browsable. The book also brought back happy memories of my early library-visiting days; I’m old enough to remember card indexes and cardboard library cards – you were limited when taking books out to the amount of cards you had. Yes, digital systems are so much more convenient, but I can’t help a certain nostalgia for the old analogue ones…

British Museum Reading Room

One of the most striking things the “Miscellany” did for me, however, was to highlight the role of universities in the evolution of libraries and the almost symbiotic relationship between the two institutions. It seems that so many libraries grew out of the university connection and yet the latter cannot function without a very well-stocked version of the former… The quote in the heading of this post is most apposite and I don’t imagine we could have libraries without universities or vice versa.

I’m not backward about coming forward and singing the praises of libraries and how important they still are, and in fact I’ve being made good use of my local one recently and gone on about it a lot here on the Ramblings. The press release for “Miscellany” calls it an “extended love letter to the library” and goes on to say “Their existence means our cultural knowledge, history and literary output is protected, organised and, above all, available to anyone.” I can’t argue with that, and Claire Cock-Starkey has produced an excellent collection of fascinating facts, stories, information, statistics and histories to celebrate one of our favourite institutions.

If I had any gripes, I would say that I would have liked the book to be bigger and longer (!) and perhaps have included some illustrations too. However, that’s a very minor quibble, and “A Library Miscellany” as it is would make the perfect gift for any book-and-library-lover you know (or even for yourself…) If you ever needed to be reminded what a thing of great wonder and beauty a library is, this lovely little book will do just that.

Review copy provided by Bodleian Library Publishing via Emma O’Bryen, for which many thanks!

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