Ada's Algorithm

Author: James Essinger
Publisher: Gibson Square
Pages: 256
ISBN: 978-1783340712
Audience: General audience
Rating: 4
Reviewer: Sue Gee

A new edition timed to coincide with Ada Lovelace Day 2016 tells "How Lord Byron's Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age through the Poetry of Numbers." 

There have been several biographies of Ada, Countess Lovelace, widely regarded as the first ever programmer, even though the computer was over a hundred years in the future when she was born in 1815. So when I sat down to read this one from James's Essinger I already knew the outline of her story and was interested what aspects he would concentrate on. Having "Algorithm" in title raised the expectation that I might be in for a mathematical insight, but by the end I saw the inclusion of this word, and the reference to the Digital Age, as a big mistake. A better clue to the emphasis is given by the reference to Lord Bryon in the subtitle.

Before sharing what I learned from this particular book and the opinion I formed of it, let's just outline the key points of her history.

Augusta Ada Byron was born on December 10 1815. Her parents were George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron and Anne Isabella Milbanke. It was not a happy marriage and just 5 weeks after the birth Annabella stole away from the marital home with the baby daughter Byron was so proud of. Byron, who left England in order to avoid his creditors and died in Greece in 1824, never saw his daughter again. Lady Byron, terrified that Ada might grow up like Byron (i.e bad moral character and a spendthrift unable to get out of debt), steered her away from poetry and towards science and mathematics. 

Having been a sickly child who was privately tutored, once old enough, she was entered London Society, and in May 1833 was presented at court as a debutante. The following month Ada was introduced to Charles Babbage at a party and shortly afterwards was invited to his house to see a demonstration of a model portion of his proposed Difference Engine. This was a turning point in her life and she devoted much of the rest of it (sadly she died less than 20 years later, aged only 36) to Babbage's projects. In particular in 1843 she translated a paper (in French) by the Italian engineer Menabrea, "Sketch of the Analytical engine invented by Charles Babbage Esq" and at Babbage's suggestion added her own notes, which turned out to be three times longer than the original paper. 

James Essinger takes a lot of pages before he even gets to the first of these events - Ada's birth. Instead the main character of its early chapters is Lord Byron - the father that Ada never met, but who exerted a lifelong influence over her. One thing I discovered at the end of Essinger's book, is that, at her own wish and in defiance of her mother, Ada was buried next to Lord Byron.

To the rest of the world, the fact that Ada was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron, was very important to her standing in society. Despite fleeing Britain and then dying abroad aged only 36, as a leading figure among the Romantic Poets, and on account of his scandalous amorous behavior, he had a cult status. This fame and glamor also extended to his estranged wife, who continued to keep her title of Lady Byron after fleeing from the marital home, and to his only legitimate daughter, something that I did understand much better having read this book. So, while Essinger's approach to this biography can be criticised for making her father seem the central, if not the the only character, in its initial pages, this heritage was important in determining the course of Ada's life. 

The first chapter goes in for locational scene setting - the Bifrons Estate in Patrixbourne, Kent. It was here that Ada was raised. I hadn't previously thought much about Ada's childhood, apart from the fact that her mother was keen on a strict educational regime. What is clear from this book is the extent to which Ada was isolated as a child, without even her mother for much of the time. She did send affectionate letters to a distant cousin on the Byron side of the family but doesn't seem to have had the company of any children her own age. 

The chapter in Essinger's book about Ada's upbringing is titled "The Art of Flying" and is largely based on letters between Ada and her mother. It transpires from these that as a 13-year old Ada determined that she wanted to fly and to build  a flying machine based on the principles of bird wings, then extended to powered flight using a steam engine. Her mother it seems discouraged her from these fanciful thoughts and it was soon afterwards that Lady Byron engaged a tutor to teach Ada mathematics. Essinger, as he does throughout his book when he mentions sums of money, something he does frequently, converts the £300 a year paid to the tutor to the equivalent today estimated at £225,000, commenting that it was "a small fortune". 

I was interested to discover that it was through Mary Somerville that Ada and her mother met Babbage. Somerville, who had studied mathematics and astronomy was to become one of the first female members of the Royal Astronomical Society, was both Ada's tutor and her friend. Michael Faraday and Charles Dickens  people that Ada would meet as part of the same social circle centred on Babbage. 



Charles Babbage is another central character of the book with a relatively long chapter entitled "Mad Scientist" tracing his early life and the background to his endeavour to produce his Difference Engine; a long section in a later chapter devoted to recounting how his mishandling of a meeting with the then Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel led to his Analytical Engine being denied government funding; and a section in the final chapter outlining his lack of progress to concrete results with the Analytical Engine because by then he had found an even more abstract idea to pursue.

One character who is very much in the background is William King, later to become Lord Lovelace, the man Ada married in 1835 and to whom, it seems she was initially attracted. The couple had three children, two boys and a girl in the first four years of the marriage. Later it seems they led fairly separate lives. William was intent on building tunnels in their country home, Ockham in Surrey while Ada devoted her time to the Analytical Engine and to mathematics - under the tuition of Augustus de Morgan since Babbage apparently declined the role.

Lord Lovelace is more in evidence in the penultimate chapter of the book titled "A Horrible Death" - and this was another chapter that provided more information about topics I not previously confronted. While Ada had had bouts of illness throughout her life it was from summer 1851 that her health deteriorated and although her headstone records her age at death as 37, she didn't quite make it to that birthday and died on November 27, 1852:

after suffering appalling pain that was only partly relived by the laudnum [a drug she was well  acustomed to] and by a new drug, chroloform. 

One of the things Lord Lovelace did for his wife the previous August, at her behest, was to ask Charles Dickens to visit her and read to her the death scene from Dicken's novel Dombey and Son. 

So far in this account of Essigner's book I've missed out the heart of the story - Ada's Algorithm, which is to do with her deep insights into how Babbage's Analytical Engine, which would be controlled by a punch card system, could be put to almost any task, and her understanding in particular of how it could compute Bernoulli numbers. 

A chapter on "The Jacquard Loom" tells of Babbage's interest in the invention of punched cards to control the silk weaving process by Joseph Jacquard and his acquisition of two woven portraits, or tableaux, depicting Jacquard seated at a desk and surrounded by tools and other objects, which people he showed it to, including the Duke of Wellington took to be an engraving. It was partly his desire to visit Lyons and see the Jacquard Loom in action that persuaded Baggage to go in person to Turin at the invitation of Italian Mathematician Giovanni Plano and address an audience of Italian philosophers on the topic of the Analytical Engine - which was the basis for Menabrea's paper. 

According to Babbage, in his own autobiography, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher when Ada told him her translation of this paper he queried why she hadn't written an account from scratch. At his prompting she wrote Notes in alphabetical sections to accompany the translation. There is some confusion about Note G - the one concerning Bernoulli numbers, which describes step-by-step how the punched cards would provide the instructions to extend the sequnce - in effect a computer program, the first one ever and for a machine that existed only as a concept. Babbage had offered to write it "to save Lady Lovelace the trouble" given that she was unwell at this time. However, it seems both from his autobiography and her letters to him that he had made a "grave mistake" which she corrected by writing a substitute section.

Once she had completed the Notes that augmented the translation, Ada wrote Babbage a long letter, quoted in Essinger's book, which he describes as "one of the most poignant in the history of the computer" in which she offers to handle both project management and public relations for his work on the Analytical Engine. He flatly refused her offer. Whether this was because he didn't want to relinquish personal control, despite his patent lack of ability when it came raising funds and managing suppliers, or because in common with all the other characters in her story he felt that Ada's status as a woman precluded any such involvement isn't known.

Despite this rejection Ada and Babbage did remain friends, one consequence of which was that they both lost a lot of money on betting on horse racing. Babbage didn't attend her funeral, possibly because by then he had fallen out with Lady Byron, but then neither did Lady Byron attend due presumably to Ada's desire to be buried next to her father.

As mentioned at the very start of this review, this is a new edition of an existing work and it is evident that there some editing has been done to eliminate errors. Unfortunately the very useful index of people mentioned in the book, is no longer accurate. Another shortcoming, also mentioned at the beginning is thatAda's algorithm, or rather her computer program for Bernoulli numbers, is covered only very briefly. As acknowledged by the author you need to have mathematical understanding to really appreciate its details and Essinger gives the game away that he doesn't possess this skill with this howler, in connection with the Analytical Engine:

This new machine would in effect be able to work correctly both with exact numbers as well as 'imaginary' numbers, that is to say numbers you can only approximate and never express exactly in reality.

Essinger provides a lot of detail of Ada's life and the people who shaped it, and as such this is a good biography. He also recognizes the way in which not only Ada but all woman of her generation, and arguably still those of today, are hampered in what they are able to achieve simply on account of being women. 


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Further Reading

Ada Lovelace, The First Programmer

When Lovelace Met Babbage
Women In STEM Receive Awards On Ada Lovelace Day 2016



Last Updated ( Thursday, 27 December 2018 )