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'Ada's Algorithm' Dishes the Dirt and Makes the Case for the World's First Programmer

With the enthusiasm of a celebrity journalist and the deep reading of an academic, James Essinger presents a flawed portrait of the flawed life of Lord Byron's daughter, Ada Lovelace.

Ada's Algorithm: How Lord Byron's Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age

Publisher: Melville House
Length: 272 pages
Author: James Essinger
Price: $25.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-10
ISBN-10: 1612194087
ISBN-13: 978-1612194080

James Essinger’s Ada’s Algorithm seeks to explore the influence of Lord Byron’s daughter on the digital age, but it does so through rather overwrought prose that harkens back to Lovelace’s estranged father. Essinger tells the story of Ada Lovelace, friend and confidant of Charles Babbage, creator of the fist computing machine, the Difference Engine—and the conceptual designer of the Analytical Engine, which was never built, but which presaged generalized computing. Lovelace understood Babbage’s ideas in ways that perhaps even its inventor did not, but the early 1800s was not technologically capable of producing the Difference Engine, let alone the Analytical Engine, and it was certainly not a time when a woman’s insights into a nascent science were taken seriously.

When you read Lovelace’s own writings, seeing her as the first computer programmer and a major influence on Babbage and the evolution of “digital” thinking is without argument. The competition is slight. She is also the first debugger, having found an error in one of Babbage’s calculations.

Lovelace has already found immortality in the computing language Lovelace, for which her memory was forever codified by early computing language developers. The Ada language continues to help fly planes and land them safely, and it contributes to the safety of other transportation systems, including the control of satellites. And annually the Ada Award recognizes outstanding contributions to computing by girls and woman. The literary world has paid tribute via works like the 1990 William Gibson and Bruce Sterling steampunk novel, The Difference Engine, along with various plays and films, such as the 1997 film, Conceiving Ada. Indeed, Lovelace’s place in the history of computing is firmly ensconced.

So why another book about Lovelace? Essinger seems more of an obsessed fan than a dispassionate observer. The book reads like defense and advocacy. “Ada,” Essinger writes, “is here seeking to do nothing less than invent the science of computing, and separate it from the science of mathematics,” when he discusses her notes on Babbage’s Analytical Engine. She was certainly insightful, but the invention of a science requires a much greater effort than any individual could do. Lovelace’s computing legacy swirls around a passage by Babbage that defined her work on Bernoulli numbers in relationship to a memoir by Menabrea on the concept of the Analytical Engine.

I then suggested that she add some notes to Menabrea's memoir, an idea which was immediately adopted. We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced; I suggested several but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process.

Lovelace realized something that others did not, but Lovelace was neither in a social or financial position to help Babbage realize the unrealized Analytical Engine, nor was she seemingly oriented toward transforming her insights into action. Rather than the first programmer or debugger, Lovelace comes across as a systems analyst, satisfied with description and observation, correction and feedback. Lovelace did not move computing forward, any more than this biography moves forward our understanding of her influence.

No historical personage can contest his or her biography—and all of them are fair game. By elevating Lord Byron to the subtitle, one would assume more importance of the poet in this telling, but it's really her mother’s reaction to her father’s dalliances that define Lovelace's upbringing. Byron had nothing to do with his daughter, except as a negative case for heredity, from which her mother wished to steer her daughter toward its antithesis. Essinger chronicles the obligatory family history and context, often in too much detail, and with many a significant tangent. He spills dirt on Lord Byron and paints an unflattering portrait of Lady Byron. A contextual summary would have sufficed, but it is nearly 100 pages before we find Ada, in Essinger’s reporting, enthralled by Babbage’s Difference Engine demonstration:

Unlike Lady Byron, Ada understood how Babbage’s brilliant innovation lined the world of mathematics to the physical machine. At is heart, lay his decision to build his machine from cogwheels… Although we don’t know exactly what drove his decision, it isn’t difficult to guess the reasoning as it was the only technology available.

Passages like the above abound: unreferenced assertions and speculation, though probably correct, conflated. The historical truth is this: Lovelace lived in a time, and under conditions, that started to explore how machinery could be used to solve mental tasks. It's also a fact that Babbage never fulfilled his promise and that his machine offered no direct relationship to electronic computing.

Ada’s Algorithm is a tough read. Perhaps had Essinger enlisted and been challenged by a strong editor the book might have proven a shorter, more engaging read: a little less gnashing of teeth and pen over the foibles of the father, fewer side journeys, a little more focus on why Lovelace matters.

In the concluding two pages of the book, Essinger does put Lovelace into context, and to the dismay of readers, he relegates both Lovelace and Babbage to merely footnotes to modern computing. When Howard Aiken, the inventor of the Mark I computer recognized Babbage in his announcement, he said that had Babbage lived 75 years later he might have been out of a job. Then Essinger goes on to note that Babbage “was a close to forgotten figure, only remembered by a few computer pioneers.” He then turns to Alan Turning who argued with Lovelace over the ages, suggesting that her assertion that the Analytical Engine could not “originate anything” was wrong, and that computers could “still surprise humans, in particular where the consequences of different faces are not immediately recognizable.”

So we sit at the end of a book, inspired by a few notes written about a non-realized machine conceived nearly 200 years ago, to discover that those notes really didn’t matter to the electronic device on which we read the book, or which sits beside it constantly communicating in ways that neither Lovelace nor Babbage ever imagined. Despite these shortcomings, the idea of Lovelace still matters, because our contemporaries see in her a glimpse of what women would eventually contribute to science.

Lovelace was handicapped as a woman in a male-oriented society. That handicap continued for women like Leona Woods Marshall Libby and Maria Goeppert Mayer, both of whom served on the Manhattan project. Mayer received a Nobel Prize in physics for her work in developing the theory of nuclear shell structure. But dozens of other women who served the Allied cause in World War II saw their careers pushed aside by men returning home from war. It would be decades before any parity was achieved, and still the glass ceiling, the prejudice or pregnancy and that lack of equal-pay-for-equal-work persists.

It's fitting, however, that in today’s more socially intelligent and liberal Western world, Lovelace’s legacy is one of encouragement for women to study math and science. It's important to plant a stake in the past upon which a future can be built. But we must remember that the idea of encouragement and invention came from others, not from Lovelace herself. Lovelace left no endowments. She wrote no treatise that furthered Babbage’s designs. Perhaps her father presaged this type of adoration when he said, “The best prophet of the future is the past.”

A book that explores how a minor, Victorian intellectual who died at 36 has remained relevant to our world of Wi-Fi and gesture-based computing, GPS and social networks, would be a fascinating read. Unfortunately Ada’s Algorithm is not that book.


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