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

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“[Ada Lovelace], like Steve Jobs, stands at the intersection of arts and technology."—Walter Isaacson, author of The Innovators

Over 150 years after her death, a widely-used scientific computer program was named “Ada,” after Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate daughter of the eighteenth century’s version of a rock star, Lord Byron. Why?

Because, after computer pioneers such as Alan Turing began to rediscover her, it slowly became apparent that she had been a key but overlooked figure in the invention of the computer.

In Ada Lovelace, James Essinger makes the case that the computer age could have started two centuries ago if Lovelace’s contemporaries had recognized her research and fully grasped its implications.

It’s a remarkable tale, starting with the outrageous behavior of her father, which made Ada instantly famous upon birth. Ada would go on to overcome numerous obstacles to obtain a level of education typically forbidden to women of her day. She would eventually join forces with Charles Babbage, generally credited with inventing the computer, although as Essinger makes clear, Babbage couldn’t have done it without Lovelace. Indeed, Lovelace wrote what is today considered the world’s first computer program—despite opposition that the principles of science were “beyond the strength of a woman’s physical power of application.”

Based on ten years of research and filled with fascinating characters and observations of the period, not to mention numerous illustrations, Essinger tells Ada’s fascinating story in unprecedented detail to absorbing and inspiring effect.

From the Hardcover edition.

272 pages, Kindle Edition

First published January 1, 2013

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About the author

James Essinger

44 books24 followers

Hi! My name is James Essinger and I'm a writer of fiction and non-fiction.

In my fiction I have a particular interest in personal relationships, travel, history, information technology and chess.

In my non-fiction I have a particular interest in the history of computing, and in language.

I was born in Leicester in the English Midlands in 1957 and I attended Overdale Junior School in Leicester and also Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys. After a year between school and university, I studied English Language and Literature at Lincoln College, which is part of the University of Oxford.

After leaving university I taught English in Finland for three nine-month sessions. I learnt Finnish, and I still speak Finnish fairly fluently. I also speak German and French.

My interests, aside from writing, include: my friends, movies, travel, chess and history.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 246 reviews
Profile Image for Heather Victoria.
6 reviews2 followers
November 12, 2014
I really wanted to read this, but the writing was terrible. Commentary on Ada Lovelace somehow sounded condescending and juvenile at the same time. I couldn't get past the beginning chapters. The biography follows a direction that makes very little sense. Would love to read more about her by a more competent writer.
Profile Image for Nicholas.
552 reviews62 followers
February 18, 2015
Ada's Algorithm has its moments, but suffers from the same problem as Hedy's Folly; it feels like an inordinate amount of time is spent on the man Ada's usually been stuck in the shadow of: Charles Babbage. At least this time I understand it a little bit more. Lovelace's monumental claim to fame is razor thin. The entirety of her professional work in the area of mathematics and information science can be found in a single document: a translation from the Italian of Luigi Menabrea's memoir on Babbage's Analytical Engine for an English audience. In addition to the rather competent translation, Ada included her own notes that elaborate upon the operation of the engine (totaling some 20,000 words, almost three times the length of Menabrea's memoir) that are mainly recognized today for their visionary quality. Lovelace seemed able to envision what even Babbage couldn't, the true capabilities of the Analytical Engine as a digitizer of information, including even, foreseeing the possibility and means of digitizing music.

One might say that Essinger's focus in this short biography is to vindicate Lovelace's contributions to the field of computer and information science. The tone is almost singularly defensive and Essinger makes it a point to refute previous attempts to marginalize Lovelace's contributions to the science by attributing her work to Babbage himself. To his credit, I think Essinger, through an examination of the epistolary evidence, successfully proves that Ada's "Notes" were entirely her own creation, including the much acclaimed "Section G" where she describes in detail how the Analytical Engine might be configured to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers - the world's first attempt at an algorithm, a sort of proto-program, which is still not quite beyond controversy. Ada has been dismissed for being a fake, a dabbler and, naturally, insane or ill - incapable of the work that was published with her initials attached. The suggestion being that Babbage did the 'real work' and that Ada was nothing more than an interpreter. As the 'Ada Initiative' points out:

Interestingly, these arguments are rarely used to question men's authorship of joint works; indeed, mental instability or difficult personalities sometimes seems to add to the reputation of male scientists and mathematicians: Nikola Tesla, John Nash and Isaac Newton to name just a few.

How absolutely true that rings doesn't it? Surely it could be expected from the time period in which Lovelace lived, but today as well? Well, of course. (See Sean Carroll's summary of the PNAS study of gender bias in science.) In any case, after reading Essinger's work I'm pretty much convinced by reading Lovelace's own words that in several passages in "Notes" she "invents the science of computing, and separates it from the science of mathematics. What she calls the 'science of operations' is indeed in effect computing" (166).

My reservation in recommending this book is that it hardly feels like an intimate portrait of Lovelace's life. Sure, a lot of the primary evidence is no longer with us - Lovelace's domineering mother, the Lady Byron, burned much of her correspondence upon her death and even went to the trouble of retrieving letters saved by other individuals and paying them so that she could get rid of it. What's left leaves a lot of guesswork for the modern biographer. Essinger does an admirable enough job piecing together the puzzle and identifying explicitly when he's taking and educated guess. The problem is that some of the figures in Ada's life loom as large, if not larger, than she does in the course of the narrative. Her father, the Lord Byron, figures very heavily for the first 30 or so pages, with very small mentions of a fragile young Ada's life as the notable poet's romantically expires. From thence to the meeting of Babbage we're treated with a window focused exclusively on Ada - and it's great! Upon meeting Babbage, however, we're treated to a long digression on his life, his origins, his relationship with his father, his work habits, his marriage, his children and his famous soirées. We're treated to a detailed explanation of the workings of both his Difference Engine and his later Analytical Engine, and while we are, we get only glimpses of Ada in the background. To a certain degree, I kind of understand it. Lovelace's claim to fame came in direct connection to Babbage's work and her friendship with the lonely inventor and Essinger is trying to elucidate the exact workings of their relationship in order to build his assertion that there was a professional respect between the two and that Babbage clearly thought her both capable and inventive herself to discredit more modern claims to the contrary. The problem is that it no longer feels like Ada's story. Unlike, Hedy's Folly, at least Ada's Algorithm is more appropriately and accurately titled (and subtitled). The subject is the work, not necessarily the Lady Lovelace, so digressions into avenues that support her achievement are therefore warranted.

That being said, I ended feeling like I had only a superficial acquaintance with Lovelace. She remains as enigmatic and aloof to me as she was before reading, and that disappoints me somewhat. She was timid and shy, especially around her mother, desirous of approval and meeting her responsibilities as determined by her Age, but in private confident and willful - a woman clearly in love with understanding and knowing and with a thirst for knowledge that is all the more impressive because of the conventions she flouts in the pursuit. Disciplined of mind and yet completely imaginative, she's the perfect synthesis of her father and mother. A pretty interesting tale of a pair of visionaries born well before their time and a story of what might have been. Essinger's work is well-researched with a thorough list of sources to follow up on.

Still on the lookout for a real biography.
Profile Image for Janta.
479 reviews1 follower
June 30, 2015
This is a fairly short book. In reading it, I frequently felt like the author had "padded" the book with irrelevant detail (e.g., a mention of Charles Dickens includes his birth date and the aside that his birthday made him "a few months shy of being exactly older than Ada by four years"); it put me in mind of writing high school and college papers where there was a word count and every extra word you could cram in was important. The subject matter seemed a little haphazardly organized as well: that same mention of Dickens -- he'd arrived to visit Ada on her deathbed -- warrants a several-page detour into the history of their acquaintance. I just wonder why that information wasn't better integrated into the chronological order of the book. Aside from those quibbles, the book was an okay read.
Profile Image for Inkspill.
396 reviews38 followers
January 4, 2023
The full title: Ada's Algorithm: How Lord Byron's Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age

though not catchy caught my eye and curiosity.

This tells the story of the contribution Ada Lovelace made to Charles Babbage’s inventions (in the early to mid-1800s) which would lead to the computer / digital age a century later.

Unfortunately, Ada Lovelace frequently gets lost in this biography as James Essinger shifts the focus to Lord Byron; Lord Byron’s marriage and then separation from Ada’s mother; Ada’s mother’s determination to make sure Ada is nothing like his father; Charles Babbage and his inventions; and Jacquard’s loom.

James Essinger explains in his preface how he came across Ada Lovelace when he was researching his book for Jacquard’s Loom, he then later says:
There has so far been no biography of Ada that fully defends the genius of her thinking, which prompted me to write this book.
He does do this, where his assertions show Ada Lovelace’s contribution and place in the development of the digital age, so for this its 4 stars.
Profile Image for Marta.
997 reviews101 followers
August 25, 2022
The subject of this book is absolutely fascinating. Ada Lovelace, the first to see the incredible potential of a programmable machine in Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, was the first programmer, a visionary, who along with Babbage, was born way ahead of her time. However, the writing in this book is so bad - childish, unedited, sloppy, vague, and worst of all, boring - that if this has not been for book club, I would have abandoned it way before I did.

Unfortunately, this is the only full length biography of Ada for adults. There are plenty of children's books, and a section on Ada in Walter Isaacson's The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. The best I can recommend is The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua, which is a fun and inventive comic book, and has artist's renditions of Babbage's famous Difference Engine and Analytical Engine, which is much more helpful than Essinger's clumsy writing.

However, I had a lot of fun googling the various fascinating subjects raised in the book (especially because I had a hard time actually reading this train wreck). So I decided to document my findings here. If you are a geek like me, you might enjoy perusing these as much as I did.

First, here is a demonstration of Babbage's Difference Engine, which has been actually built and been exhibited in the Computer History Museum. It is fascinating (24 minutes):


If you are not in the mood for a video, here is a picture. I bet you want to know how it works:

The other fascinating subject that sent me down on the rabbit hole of learning about looms and punch cards is the Jacquard loom. This was essentially the world's first programmable machine that used punch cards to govern the lowering and raising of threads in a loom, which allowed for weaving intricate patterns. Each card described one row of the weave, and they were strung together and could run in a loop. They were huge - but the concept of punch cards was used in computing until the seventies. Babbage envisioned using Jacquard cards to program his Analytical Engine:

Short video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQzpL...

I give props to Essinger for his devotion to Ada and doing the research. However, enthusiasm does not make a good book and he clearly struggles with writing and did not even seem to have had a decent editor. I just couldn’t finish.

Wikipedia is a much better source on Ada than this book.
Profile Image for Ciraabi.
24 reviews1 follower
January 26, 2021
The short version of this review is if you're looking for a book about Ada, this is not it.

My biggest frustration with this book is that it is so padded with additional information. It would be one thing if it was other side tid bits about Ada's life that did not necessarily pertain to her contributions that this book claims to be about, but it isn't. There is too much side tracks on people and events that have nothing to do with Ada. The first few chapters go into Lord Byron when he wasn't even involved in her life, and could have been significantly reduced to a few paragraphs to get the same idea across. Babbage I can understand a little more, but even then there were times I was wondering why the author decided to focus on him at some points of the book. There were also periods where the author would go on tangents on other figures that Ada interacted with. While yes these people were in her life, they held no relevance to Ada's work. Honestly, why is Charles Dickens talked about so much??

Whole letters are sited so often that eventually I started to just skim them because it felt like they were being used to make the book longer. Sometimes they were interesting, but again more often than not I was wondering what the point of having this entire letter was. The letters combined with the many irrelevant tangents made this book a slog.

The kicker in all of this is it takes more than half the book to get to the point the author finally talks about Ada's work. Except when he gets to the portion of her notes that talk about her algorithm, the author quickly sums up that yes, Note G is where her algorithm resides and moves on without ever talking more in depth about it. So you slog through all these side stories that don't matter and the background of Babbage's machine just to have the author not even talk about what it is laid out in the title of the book. It is incredibly disappointing and frustrating. At that point I was close to the end anyways and finished the book out of spite more than anything.

There are probably much better informed, and better written, sources on Ada and her work. Save yourself the trouble of this book, because it talks about everything except Ada.
Profile Image for Olga Kowalska (WielkiBuk).
1,412 reviews2,299 followers
February 10, 2020
Istnieje wiele powodów dla których warto sięgnąć po książkę Essingera. Znajdziecie w niej ciekawy obraz epoki, przepełniony znajomym nam literacko światem plotek, romansów i towarzyskich lapsusów (któż wiedział, iż lord Byron romansował z siostrą przyrodnią Mary Shelley, autorki Frankensteina?). Znajdziecie w niej wizjonerów, goniących za nieuchwytnym króliczkiem technologicznego postępu. Znajdziecie w niej wreszcie Adę. Kobietę, której nie da się „sformatować” do prostej roli wyemancypowanej buntowniczki – która jednak inspiruje, na wiele różnych sposobów.
Profile Image for Viivi .
42 reviews26 followers
May 3, 2023
The book is about Ada but it felt like she is Babbage's sidekick on his journey of creating the analytical engine. (Nor I'm interested in Lord Byron when I'm reading about his daughter.) The writing is horrendous and it's (unluckily) communicated through the translation as well. The positive about this book is that it at least tries to introduce the character of Ada Lovelace and it's a fairly quick and compact read.
Profile Image for Kat Chen.
16 reviews2 followers
June 28, 2015
Honestly, this book disappointed me. I purchased this novel from the MIT press bookstore, high on a wave of feminism and the desire to learn more about early engineers. Though this book did provide an excellent background history on both Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, and Lord Byron, it was disappointing in all other aspects. At times, the word choice was confusing. It seemed that the author chose words with discrete double meanings, in which both meanings could apply in that situation. At other times, it seemed that the "circumlocution" that the author so mocked within the book, was also his preferred style of writing. Perhaps a show of camp?

However, the most utterly let-me-down moment of the book came when I realized that a lot of the behind-the-scenes work and brilliance of Ada Lovelace was inference at best and surmise at worse on the author's part. Though, he actively admits that he 'believes' and 'can deduce through logic' the role and emotions of Ada Lovelace concerning Charles Babbage and his work, it is at the end of the day, mere speculation. Finally, he spends a good chunk of the book proving through letters from Ada that his speculations are grounded in evidence which is circumstantial most of the time. Though some parts of the book were educational, I do slightly feel like I've wasted my time.
Profile Image for Poppy.
99 reviews9 followers
February 10, 2017
I found this biography by chance in a charity shop, just after wondering whether I'd find a book about Ada Lovelace there. Naturally I was thrilled, and started reading it straight away. But I found it a bit disappointing - the subject matter is infinitely interesting, and I liked how we were given a good background about Ada's parents, but in the second half I felt like it just became a biography about Charles Babbage. Now I understand that you can't have one without the other, but I found that Essinger focused too much on Babbage, who, to be honest, I'm really not interested in. I appreciate his importance in Ada's life, but I felt his story could've been summed up in a chapter, but Essinger just kept going into such great detail about him! Otherwise it was a good overview about Ada's life, though some of it felt like guess-work being supported by lots of long quotes.
Profile Image for Amy Dalton.
76 reviews
February 28, 2020
Ugh. This book was painful. I wanted to love it! The writing is too in-depth and historical about royalty and others with very little about Ada. I stopped on page 151 of 235 and it still hasn’t gotten to the part where Ada “launched the digital age”. The writing is like reading an academic research paper.
Profile Image for Marta (Bibliofilem być).
442 reviews302 followers
January 31, 2020
Cieszę się, że mogłam poznać postać Ady Lovelace, ale czegoś mi w tej książce zabrakło i nie nazwałabym jej biografią, a opowieścią, w której Ada jest jedną z bohaterek, ale wcale nie tą najważniejszą.
Profile Image for Jillian.
1,949 reviews88 followers
December 1, 2016
I am many things. I am a reader, a writer, a cat lover, a history nerd, and a feminist. Most importantly, I am a book opportunist. What could this mean? It means that, whenever I have a research paper or project in which I am able to chose the topic, I pick something that has a book related to it on my to-read list. This way, I can buy and read books I actually want to read and count it as my schoolwork in my schedule. I kill two birds with one stone, and I usually get an A because my generation has apparently forgotten books exist for research. They just don't know my tactics. I haven't figured out how to make Harry Potter the subject of a research paper, but I'm sure I'll work it in one day.

As both a history nerd and a feminist, Ada's Algorithm excited me. I knew a little about Ada Lovelace before reading this biography; I had listened to Stuff You Missed in History Class's podcast on Lovelace (which is excellent), but that was about the extent of my knowledge. For a busy, tired college student, Ada's Algorithm is a quick and easy read. I thought that it fleshed out the story of Lovelace's life and work well, though I guess I did need more of the technical math aspects for my project. Whatever. I also thought that it spent too much time of Babbage, but that could also be my inner feminist raging. There was actually so many gems about Lovelace in this biography. Like the fact that she wanted to build herself wings so she could fly as a girl? Or that one of her math tutors wrote to her mother worried that Ada was thinking too math like a man and that her "fragile" female body couldn't handle that sort of brainpower? God, I love history.

Ada Lovelace, you were brilliant, imaginative, and a pioneer in computer programming. I don't believe for a second that your work isn't yours because we all know what your contemporaries thought of a female mathematician. The patriarchy always tries to bring us down. You changed the world for the better; you predicted what computers would do before that was even a concept. You're awesome, and I salute you. Babbbage, I guess you're cool to.

Definitely recommended!
Profile Image for BookishWordish.
80 reviews46 followers
May 21, 2018
There was a lot of focus on Ada's father, and I understand why. I mean... it's hard NOT to write about Lord Byron, considering how interesting (read: wild) his life was. But this isn't meant to be a book about Lord Byron, is it? So that was frustrating.

When it wasn't talking about Byron, there was a lot of discussion about Ada's social life- placing her in the wider social context of her time. Which is fine. It makes sense. It's important. But there was a lot of that, and this isn't a very long book.

Then there was much discussion of her personal life. You know, how she got on with her mother, what her romantic life was like, who she made friends with. Not uninteresting, but still not very much about her being a genius.

None of these subjects were uninteresting. They all belong in this sort of book- we need the context of her family, her social situation, etc. Those things are pretty standard and necessary. But this is only a short book, and between her dad, her social life and her love life, there wasn't much time left for her intellectual life. Which, for a book that describes itself as examining 'a female genius' is pretty depressing.
Profile Image for Hannah.
Author 3 books7 followers
January 5, 2017
This was a delightful account of Ada's life. I really enjoyed reading about her relationship with Charles Babbage. Essinger's book is very readable and entertaining. We often think of math being so cut and dry, but Ada really used it in an imaginative way. It makes me want to start to learn programming.
Profile Image for Amy.
5 reviews3 followers
March 18, 2015
Wonderful book about Ada Lovelace which gives a clear picture about not only the woman but also the people and society around her.
Profile Image for Sofia.
29 reviews
July 12, 2021
Interesting information , but the writing can be too sentimental, which becomes annoying at times.
Profile Image for Brian Clegg.
Author 204 books2,568 followers
October 16, 2016
Women in science have, without doubt, had a bad press, though thankfully this has now been reversed. There was a time when the likes of Caroline Herschel, Henrietta Leavitt, Emmy Noether and even relatively modern figures such as Rosalind Franklin and Jocelyn Burnell would have had their roles played down by the science writing community. Now, these individuals are rightly feted. But there is also the danger that, in the rush to right past wrongs, we overemphasise some individual's roles - not helped by science writing's urge to focus on individuals where science is often a collaborative venture.

Perhaps there is no individual subject where that tightrope has to be walked more carefully than with Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, who has become such a symbolic figure that we need to be really careful not to inflate her actual role out of all proportion. We shouldn't hide Ada away, nor should we suggest she wasn't an intelligent person. She had a strong interest in maths and thought at length about the potential applications of Charles Babbage's innovative idea for an 'analytical engine' that was a close, if dead-end, predecessor of a programmable computer. Yet we should also remember that Ada's sole claim to fame is writing about Babbage's failed invention. This is the tightrope that presents itself to James Essinger in writing Ada's Algorithm. And the test of his effectiveness will be whether or not he falls off.

It was very interesting to read about the early life of Ada Byron (as she was before marriage), and her sad, very early death, as we usually only hear about the period when she was interacting with Babbage. The impression is of a rich young woman of enthusiasms, at a time when anyone with money was not supposed to seem interested in things (arguably Prince Albert's second problem in getting accepted, after being German). This cultural expectation to avoid serious enthusiasm was doubly strong for a woman. Ada's father, Lord Byron, had little direct impact on her, being absent from when she was very young, so the formative parent was very much her mother, who while not ecstatic about Ada's mathematical interests, at least allowed her to get some training.

Essinger's first test was in his presentation of Ada's mathematical abilities. He tells us that she had the potential to be a great mathematician. This may have been true, though no direct evidence is put to us - she certainly was not producing theorems, Noether-style. Instead, though Essinger tells us of genius, what he shows us is her enthusiasm. She certainly seems to have loved maths, and that's probably as much as can be deduced from the information presented. Several times, Essinger accuses Babbage (whom he seems to have developed a dislike for) of being a dilettante. This was probably true to an extent - though he did produce designs for his calculating engines and a part of the Difference Engine - but it also seems clear that Ada, portrayed by Essinger as the one who was more application-minded - was equally a dilettante rather than professional. You could hardly expect anything else from someone in her position at that time.

The second test is how the contribution Ada makes to the remarkable Analytical Engine idea. This was through the notes she added to the translation she made of a French description (by an Italian scientist) of Babbage's work. Lazy portraits of Ada portray her as a programmer - this clearly isn't true, though the notes include what could be considered the design for a program which appears to have been worked on with input from both of them. But the remarkable claim that Essinger makes is that Ada understood what the Analytical Engine was, foreseeing the whole business of computing, while Babbage, it is claimed, hadn't a clue what the Analytical Engine could do, other than be a better calculator.

Although Essinger presents Ada's words in support of this, they are far too vague and woffly to be definitive, and where she does make a claim that is interpreted as being non-mathematical, she seems to be referring to the approach in (then) modern maths of using operators, which certainly resembles some computing ideas, but was quite separate. There is no doubt that Ada stresses how the Analytical Engine would be something new and transformative - but it seems a bizarre assertion that Babbage had no idea of what his own invention could do, while Ada was the only one to see it.
There is also a classic example of oversell when Essinger claims that Ada 'foresaw the digitisation of music as CDs...' This is because Ada remarked that supposing the 'fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible to [the Engine's] expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaboration and scientific pieces of music...' This is not about the optical storage of music data, but about mechanising the kind of mathematical approach Bach, for example, had played with in his work.

(I can't avoid also flagging up a strange bit of history of science, totally unconnected to Ada. When Essinger is describing the eventual development of computing, he remarks 'The dream began to start coming true in 1881, when a young engineer, William J. Hammer, who was working at Thomas Edison's laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey, made an accidental discovery that turned out to be of great importance. He discovered an inexplicable current in an evacuated vacuum tube that turned out to lead to the discovery of electrons.' Yet Crookes and others had already made wide investigations of cathode rays in the 1870s - this seems an odd re-write of history.)

Am I convinced, as the subtitle says, that Ada 'launched the digital age through the poetry of numbers'? No, not at all. She put a lot of effort into explaining and speculating on the application of a failed piece of technology. But she didn't launch anything, and certainly not the digital age. However, despite the book's flaws in emphasis (and an occasional tendency to use over-long quotes from the tedious writing style of the period), this is an entertaining biography of Ada Lovelace, and though it is in danger of over-emphasising her role, after so many years when women's real contributions were overlooked, such a response is hardly surprising.
Profile Image for blok sera szwajcarskiego.
732 reviews174 followers
December 28, 2020
Nie jestem specem w kategorii biografii, w życiu żadnej nie czytałam. Ale mam wrażenie, że "biografia Ady" to określenie nieco nad wyraz - tytułowa bohaterka zajmuje może nieco poniżej połowy całego tekstu; resztę wypełniają informacje i przeżycia osób jej znanych. Dużo skupia się na jej rodzicach, Babbage'u czy, o dziwo, Dickensie.

Tak naprawdę to książka o matematyce w XVIII-wiecznej Anglii, jej pionierach i pomysłach, których realizacja nastąpiła dopiero setki lat później. Mimo wszystko czytało ją się naprawdę przyjemnie, samo założenie jest interesujące, zaś ówczesna rzeczywistość potrafiła zaskoczyć. Choć z doborem słów w tytule możnaby polemizować, tak kłamstwem by było, gdybym powiedziała, że nie dowiedziałam się niczego nowego.
Profile Image for Margaret Hanson.
Author 1 book1 follower
October 7, 2017
This is definitely another case of I was going to like the book regardless of how it was written because the subject was fascinating. Ada Lovelace was someone I was eager to read about. But a note to biographers of women in STEM: I'm here to read about their work, not your speculation about their lovelife. This is the second book I've read in the past couple months that devotes a disproportionate amount of time to that when there's no evidence one way or the other and it doesn't even matter.
Profile Image for Kath.
54 reviews4 followers
September 3, 2018
Take this book with a pinch of salt. Essinger provides a lot of hearsay and unconfident assertions with phrases like ‘there is evidence’ – what evidence? For an introduction into Ada’s life it does the job, but might be best read alongside other biographies. It definitely feels padded out purposefully by full letters rather than extracts and heavy biographical info on Charles Babbage, who isn’t necessarily who you read for.
Profile Image for Alex Railean.
237 reviews39 followers
May 25, 2020
Ah, Ada could have accomplished so much more if she lived in our age.

We should all look back and tell ourselves we've come a long way in making society more balanced... then look at the present and realize that there's still room for improvement.

Thank you for your work, Ada!
Profile Image for Piky.
29 reviews
February 28, 2021
Buena biografía sobre Ada Lovelace en la que entra en detalle en su vida personal así como en su vida profesional, donde se ve lo visionaria que era en su momento, y lo difícil que es ser mujer.
Profile Image for Isabelle.
71 reviews2 followers
April 22, 2021
Honestly I was really excited for this book but it read as a dull history book. I’m still really disappointed. Now looking for suggestions for better Ada Lovelace books!
Profile Image for Tim Milligan.
122 reviews1 follower
February 13, 2021
The central chapters about her work with Babbage are good, and helped me understand a lot of things I had previously not entirely grasped. The rest of the book does a good job at explaining her life and times, but often feels stretched in an attempt to make the book longer. But it's pretty good.
Profile Image for Sarah.
365 reviews6 followers
April 9, 2022
So I'm on Storygraph now as well as Goodreads (and LibraryThing--I'm a little bit nuts) and my stats told me that I hadn't read anything but fiction so far this year. Since I'm always agonizing about how to decide what to read next, I figured it was time to fix that.

Through no fault of Essinger's, I couldn't help but be a bit disappointed with Ada's Algorithm. People seem to have a horrible habit of burning the effects of the departed. Instances that stand out in my memory include Art Speigelman's father burning his wife's diaries, as related in Maus; the family of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who championed small pox inoculation to England (see the excellent The Speckled Monster for her story), burning her letters and journals; one of my own relatives burning her husband's career-spanning film archive from the first decades of television; and another relative's plan to burn all family letters from WWII. Ada Lovelace was no exception: upon her death, her mother burned all of her correspondence that she felt displayed the family in too negative a light; it's likely that the only reason as much of her work survived as it did is that Ada's mother, Annabella, Lady Byron, was herself a bit of a math nerd, so she recognized the value of Ada's work with Charles Babbage. Essinger reminds us a couple of times that we have more surviving letters from the year she and Babbage were working on their Analytical Machine than from any other year of her life for this reason.

If you're looking for a full, rich depiction of who Ada was as a person, well, if it could even exist after so much of her life was reduced to ash, this isn't the place to find it: Essinger is upfront (literally in the preface, but also in his occasional lapses into first person) that he is here with an agenda. Many women in science have had their contributions overlooked and dismissed, but Ada has even been called crazy. Most of the blame for this likely rests on the Victorian painkillers she took while dying of uterine cancer; writing about math and science under the influence of laudanum and cannabis are apparently grounds to have your entire intellect dismissed. I suspect that her playful side may have been a source of dismissal as well, as it's all to easy to imagine some stuffy old academic dude seeing a woman describe herself as a fairy and recount childhood dreams of mechanical flight, rolling his eyes, and looking away from anything else she might have to say.

Does Essinger succeed in his mission to rehabilitate Ada's reputation as the woman who wrote the first computer program? I'm...not quite sure. He makes a very convincing case to someone (me) who hasn't read anything else about her. But it's impossible to set aside two facts:
(1) her contribution, remarkable as it was in its foresight of the modern age, resides only in Notes appended to a single article written by someone else (which she translated) and consists mostly of theoretical applications; and,
(2) though remarkable, her speculations about the potential power and influence of an Analytical Engine does not seem to have had any impact in or have been of interest to the contemporary scientific community.

Perhaps Essinger simply didn't write enough about what Ada and Babbage's contemporaries thought of their work after it was published, focusing as he does on convincing us of her work's worth. He places so much emphasis on Ada's Notes that the book's most substantial chapter, which describes them, quotes directly from them directly at great length with, in my opinion, not quite enough helpful interpretation of the dense, 19th-century scientific language and grammar. The final chapter describing Ada's legacy--which is basically entirely tied up with Babbage's--talks about how even Babbage was largely forgotten until the invention of the first computer in the 1940s, 100 years later. So while it's true that Ada's vision of what a computer could be was attributed to Babbage, even Babbage didn't make the splash that the Curies or Watson and Crick did in their fields. Essinger may successfully argue that Ada's ideas were groundbreaking and ahead of their time, but even to someone who hoped to be convinced (me), the idea that she was a revolutionary who "launched the digital age" just doesn't hold up.

A quote from Slate on the back of my edition says, "We need [Ada] as a symbol...of all women who have contributed to the progress of science and technology, and of all the women who might have contributed if given the chance." With so little of her life's work left, and so little of it to begin with, given her early death, I'm not sure whether Essinger's book manages to elevate Ada much beyond just that: a symbol of what what we lost for thousands of years by undervaluing half our species.

So if we know so little about Ada and only one fat chapter is devoted to her article, what else is in this 250-ish page book? If you're only here for the programming (like Areg was when he got the book), you might be a bit bored in the first half. If you have a wide-ranging interest in history, there's plenty to enjoy. Here's one thing that I posted on Facebook that's totally irrelevant but still interesting:

So I'm reading a book called "Ada's Algorithm" and it said that her father, Lord Byron, had a "club foot" but that this wasn't much remarked upon because so many people in the upper class had something genetically off, whether it manifested mentally or physically, because...Regency high society consisted of about 5,000 people, which meant most of them were related to each other somehow. For context, the Amish population of Lancaster County is about 30,000. Yeah. So remember THAT the next time you're watching Bridgerton: historically, all these folks were probably related. Suddenly, it makes so much sense why Gothic and Victorian literature is full of visible disabilities and madness...

There's plenty for Essinger to tell us about Ada's notorious father, George, Lord Byron--a notorious, equal-opportunity rake who had a lengthy affair with his half-sister, lived large and accumulated massive debts, drove his wife away after little more than a year when separation was scandalous, ran off to the continent to escape his debts and live even freer, and, oh yeah, was one of the most famous poets of the age. Ada's mother gets relatively short shrift, with Essinger focusing on her emotional coldness, hypochondria, and manipulations of her daughter's life, but she was also a staunch abolitionist and amateur mathematician. Babbage was quite a character, always coming up with a new idea that rendered his previous one obsolete, and was the subject of one of Charles Dickens' thinly disguised satires. Also on the periphery of Ada's story are Charles Dickens himself, who read to Ada on her deathbed; a remarkable mathematician who likely has whole books dedicated to her, Mary Somerville, for whom the first Oxford College for women was named; and Ada's own husband, who was apparently obsessed with building tunnels on his property (okay, maybe I'm the only one who finds that intriguing...).

Finally, though the thought didn't quite fit further up in my review, I don't want to close without mentioning the what-might-have-been that Essinger relates. Anyone can lament the loss of an intellectual powerhouse before they reach 40; but Essinger suggests that losing Ada also meant losing Babbage. One of their surviving letters includes an offer to act as Babbage's "agent", of a sort, using her connections and calmer personality on Babbage's behalf to help him obtain funding and support for his Analytical Engine while he focused on the practical construction. For an emotional man like Babbage (his disastrous meeting with Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel is a case study in why the argument that women were too emotional for science but men weren't was absurd), a buffer and who understood his vision as well as he did, who had the social skills to champion it and the intellectual vision to focus its development and expand its application, could have been what he needed to actually build his machine: "She would have been better suited to direct his engineers and even his financial affairs with greater charm, clarity and effectiveness" (p. 232-233). But Babbage turned her down. Perhaps his pride got in the way. Perhaps, despite their deep friendship, which many consider borderline romantic, and their close collaborative intellectual partnership, he still didn't see a woman up to the task he'd set himself.

Quote Roundup

p. 33) Lady Byron had left the strange, wayward, selfish, and fundamentally unhappy man she had mistakenly married. And now she found herself in a life she had never planned. Her entire upbringing and attitude to life had been focused on her at some point becoming a wife and a mother.

p. 114) Quick note about footnotes here: There are at least two where Essinger credits one of his researchers with discovering hitherto unknown or forgotten dates of births, deaths, and marriages. He describes Babbage as "generous with his credits" (p. 116), always attributing ideas to their originators, and Essinger seems to have followed suit, which is lovely to see.

p. 141) The idea of the Analytical Engine as a kind of Jacquard loom that wove calculations had a deep and persisting appeal to Ada. ... [Babbage] saw the world, and mechanisms, in a much more literal, factual and - indeed - analytical way than she did. For Ada, inventing metaphors for understanding science was second nature. Babbage hardly ever did this. But the real point - and this explains why Ada's contribution to the idea of the Analytical Engine is so important - is that the brilliance of the conception of the Analytical Engine requires both a scientific and emotive perceptions if it is to be fully understood and expressed. For Ada, Jacquard's loom was a conceptual gateway for developing that emotional understanding.
I think I just resent the use of the world "emotional" because it has historically been used to dismiss women and their ideas. I'd rather think of Ada's contribution as more metaphorical or imaginative, her ability to communicate about and make connections between what exists already and what could exist one day.

p. 150) Babbage recounts in his memoirs a conversation with Ada in which he asks why she chose to translate someone else's article about his machine rather than write one of her own, and she replies that it hadn't occurred to her. As with the quote above about Annabella finding herself in an unexpected position in life, Essinger argues that Ada finds Babbage's confidence in her abilities unexpected. Despite her confidence in her social spheres, and even her acquaintance with Mary Somerville, she "had been told from early youth not to think too much of herself...lest it encourage the wilful parts of her personality. ... [But] in science, her confidence melted away and she saw her role as that of the hand-maiden to others."

p. 191) There is no written evidence surviving that Babbage truly understood what Ada had written about the Analytical Engine. In reading her Notes, he may have focused merely on the complex mathematical material (and attributed - or blamed - what he saw as the more discursive ideas on her 'fairy' imagination).
If there's a tragedy in Ada and Babbage's friendship, it's this: that her ideas and legacy depended so much on him. If he had not encouraged her to write, if he had taken credit for her ideas, if he had understood the value of her imagination and her offer to explain and promote his work...well, at least in the last case, the world might be very different. But because he was unable to completing his Analytical Engine--by failure to focus, to describe its importance, to receive funding--Ada, too, was unable to contribute more. Even the most remarkable women in history were so often dependent on the few men who would support them. If that's not an argument for allyship, I don't know what is.
Profile Image for LAPL Reads.
544 reviews166 followers
March 6, 2015
Ada Lovelace was the only legitimate child of Lord Byron, the brilliant and disturbed poet who died at thirty-six after living a life of excessive debauchery. Her mother came from a wealthy, fairly open-minded family, and for a woman at that time she received a somewhat decent education. The marriage lasted a little over a year, when Lady Byron took the young baby, and ran away from her controlling husband. Because Lord Byron had led a most profligate life, rife with an abuse of drugs and sex, it was one of Lady Byron’s chief goals to protect Ada from her father. It was not only Lord Byron's behavior that was cause for alarm, but there was fear that Ada had inherited some of the Byron family’s less desirable characteristics. In order to rein in any of these traits, her mother exerted an enormous amount of control over the child, and the young girl was trained to be respectfully obedient, with no room for questioning her mother's authority. The young Ada was brought up by tutors and at an early age exhibited a fine mind. She was an excellent student, a talented artist and linguist, and had a unique imagination. Her mother's main goal in giving Ada an exceptional education was to have her marry well. Ada did go on to marry well and have children, but there was a good deal more to her life than what her mother planned.

When seventeen-year-old Ada and her mother lived in London she was presented to society in order to find a suitable husband, but one social evening would be momentous. Wednesday, June 5, 1833, mother and daughter stepped out to attend a party where Ada met Charles Babbage, the creator of the Difference Engine, which was an early calculation machine. For the forty-two-year-old widower Babbage, and the teenage Ada, it was kismet and the subject was mathematics. On their shared passionate interest in mathematics, mathematical theory and philosophy, and what it would mean for Ada, James Essinger says it all, ". . . Ada Byron's insight into the future of calculation would erupt into a new and most radical kind of imagining, and would give her a vision of a kind of Jacquard loom that wove, not silk thread, but arithmetic and mathematics. In other words a computer." The Jacquard Loom was a French mechanical loom that used punch cards, and Babbage's knowledge of this device prompted him to use the same method in his calculator. Ada would go on to work with Babbage on his Analytical Engine and write notes for it, and the notes have been called the first computer program. In her notes she envisaged Babbage's creation would lead to greater possibilities than being an advanced type of calculator. For over a decade they continued to work together, until her death after prolonged suffering from uterine cancer.

Among scholars there has been much debate as to the amount of credit is due Ada Lovelace, with a few writers accusing of her being a drug user/abuser like her father, and that she went mad as a result. Quite often she took laudanum (a combination of opium and brandy) to relieve the ever-increasing pain from advanced uterine cancer. She never was addicted to drugs, but rather to learning prompted by her endless curiosity. James Essinger addresses the differing opinions and attributes some of it to outright misogyny. However there is very little dispute about what she did envision for the future use of a device such as the Analytical Engine. Also, the doubters certainly must wonder why Ada has been honored throughout the world with buildings named in her honor; the computer language Ada, created by the U.S. Department of Defense, was named after her and the reference usage manual was given the number of her birth; the British Computer Society has awarded a medal in her honor; there is an Ada Lovelace Day; the Ada Initiative which encourages and supports women in technology and other endeavors; and three years ago, Google celebrated her 197th year. She was a remarkable woman who overcame the embarrassment and notoriety of her brilliant but flawed father; her controlling and manipulative mother; financial upsets; and endured great pain at the end of her very short life at thirty-seven. And she was remarkable because her intelligence, inventiveness, and creativity persisted in spite of the obstacles.

Reviewed by Sheryn Morris, Librarian, Central Library
Profile Image for Miles.
256 reviews15 followers
February 22, 2015
The author argues, persuasively, that it was Lady Ada Lovelace herself, and not her mentor, the scientist Charles Babbage, who truly grasped the potential of algorithmic computation. The year of her great work was 1843. In the misogyny of the time, even the wealthy Ada Lovelace feared to sign her name to the 20,000 word scientific paper that was appended to her translation of a French scientific paper about Babbage's Difference Engine. A paper by a woman would not be taken seriously. But in that article, signed AAL, written collaboratively with Babbage as editor, she foresaw the future in ways that are fascinating to behold.

You can read her great scientific contribution here. http://fourmilab.ch/babbage/sketch.html

Essinger's biography walks us through upper-crust England in the early 19th century. London was dominated by its 5000 super-wealthy aristocrats who floated far above a vast pool of people living in great deprivation. London was the playground of Lord Byron, the poet, Ada's father. His brief marriage to Ada's mother quickly fell apart as he resumed his affair with his half-sister and generally libertine ways. Pursued by his debts, he left England and never saw his daughter after the age of one. The mother protected her daughter from the wagging tongues of high society and sought to prevent her from becoming a wild romantic like her father by assuring a rigorous mathematical education that would (surely!) control her passions.

Ada, however, developed a passion for mathematics, and made herself a student of Charles Babbage (and others). After marrying "well" into a titled family of her class, and producing an heir and two more children, she returned to mathematics and her work with Charles Babbage and became the first human being on earth to grasp the fundamental concepts of computer programming - data, functions, processing, the capacity of a machine to apply rules to data to reach conclusions that were implicit in the data. To read her words is to feel oneself in the presence of genius, and of a mind aware that it is uncovering something that may be utterly novel.

If Essinger's story of Ada sometimes dwells a bit too much on peripheral information about the people of Ada's world (Charles Dickens himself makes an appearance as an acquaintance, and others more obscure than he are also described), Essinger must, as a scholar, be forgiven for walking us down a few alleys of lesser interest. Overall we get a sense of the rarefied world of Ada Lovelace, and the powerful mix of abject misogyny and profound class privilege that enabled a mind such as hers to emerge, and to find an opportunity to express itself on a subject that she alone grasped to its full depth.

Essinger concludes that while Babbage provided the machine (his Difference Engine and the proposed Analytical Engine) and the context for Ada Lovelace's thought, she alone saw their implications to their full depth. Not only did she exceed him in theoretical explication of computational ideas, but she also proposed to manage his public relations and business affairs, an idea which he, perhaps in a snit of Victorian male rectitude, rejected. In hindsight it appears he would have much benefited from her connections and worldly competence, had he only chosen to accept her offer of patronage / managerial support. But instead, as it happened, Babbage never completed the gears and levers and wheels that would have enabled the Analytical Engine he had imagined to function, and its operations remained a theoretical proposition in his mind, and more deeply it seems, in the mind of Ada Lovelace. It would be at least 75 years before the mechanical systems (electricity! vacuum tubes!) that would enable Ada Lovelace's algorithmic vision to become a reality were invented and deployed.

Profile Image for Tessel Doucet.
15 reviews
February 9, 2022
Left me wanting

Herstory, the pursuit of restoring women’s true and deserved place in history, is the reason I set out to find and read this book. Charles Babbage is quite a well-known pioneer of computing, but this Lady Lovelace’s vision was actually even more, well… visionary. In hindsight. Also, the New York Times promised an “engrossing biography”. Finally, I found studying computing helped me structure my thoughts myself, so who knows what I might learn from a female genius?

The first half of the book was indeed quite engrossing. I was shocked to learn about Lord Byron’s upbringing and walk of life. He was born into debt and power, and in the eyes of a 20ieth century parent, emotionally neglected and traumatised by transgressive behaviour from at least one promiscuous nanny. Unsurprisingly, he grew up to be an emotionally unstable, philandering money wasting Lord. He would probably be diagnosed with bipolar today (an interesting aside, as I have been diagnosed with bipolar II myself). He had regular sexual relations with his half sister. None of this was any exception in the company of other Lords, it seems. Yes, the centre of power of one of the most powerful empires at the time - 19th century - was a putrid cesspool of loose morals and decadent spending.

The solution to the money squandering was: flee to the continent (short term), or marry into money (midterm). Actually owning one’s living was deemed beneath one’s station, in these circles.

The women who fell in love with such men, were expected to do everything after; manage the household, bear the children, and pay for everything. And put up with the continuing philandering and money spending.

It is amazing how women continued to fall for these men. Then again, women had to marry, and marry someone of the right station. And mothers had to marry off their daughters. So did Annabella Milbank’s parents. Annabella was an intelligent woman, only child. Somewhat bored, from the province, not too beautiful. Apparently she fell for Lord Byron’s wit. His status as a poet must have helped, too. About 18 months after meeting, they did marry, although he was reluctant, literally arriving days late to his own wedding.

Ada was born about 11 months into the marriage, and a month later Annabella left Byron, who was to never see his daughter again. Thankfully Annabella’s parents had safeguarded the greater part of her wealth outside of the marriage.

Annabella, or Lady Byron as she did continue to call herself, set out to raise Ada with discipline and rigour, to prevent her from turning into the looney tunes Annabella considered the Lord, her former husband, whose name she would carry for the rest of her life nonetheless. Ada turned out to have a knack for mathematics. Now, Annabella did support her by finding her the best tutors; on the other hand, these tutors, mostly male, Annabella herself, and well, everyone really, shuddered to encourage Ada to venture where none had ventured before, to actually develop new work, because this was considered unhealthy, destabilising, and actually dangerous for women at the time.

In fact Ada did not start her best work, in hindsight, until she had properly married (to Lord Lovelace) and given birth to three childen. Even then, she had to squeeze her intellectual work in with managing the household and raising the kids.

The flow of the book drops off significantly as we turn to the field (industrialisation of the textile industry) that would spawn Ada's best work. As it turns out, the work that made her so famous later on, mostly after Alan Turing dug it up in his WWII efforts to decipher the German's coding at Bletchely Park, that work is an annotated translation of a description of Babbage’s design of the Analytical Engine. Something we might now consider a precursor of a computer, to be programmed by feeding it punchcards, the way a Jacquard loom was, which was a huge inspirating innovation for the scientific community at large the time.

She tried to get Babbage, who seems autistic and kept failing at “selling” his newer inventions to possible investors, to allow her to do this PR work for him. To take a step back and let her function as an intermediary. Unfortunately - for him, for her, for the work -, he refused. Not long after, she started suffering from horrible bleedings from the womb, which developed into full on uterine cancer, that killed her just before she turned 37. She died at 36, just as her father.

So yes, after the extensive description of Lord and Lady Byron’s respective childhoods and how they met, the book lost its flow, to me. There were so many interesting things there; the rotten culture in the epicentre of power of the United Kingdom and how that casts its shadow forward to today's society and possibly the workings of many families firmly lodged in the current centre of power - old money, royalty. The triple load women in upper circles were carrying. The infuriating dumbing down of women, to not change the status quo, to keep them in their workhorse place. The inhumanity of how people treated eachother and how society worked.

I guess I felt there was a disbalance in the depth to which Lady Byron’s charachter was described vs. Lord Byron. She comes off as a cold, distant mother, off to spa retreats most of the time, locked away in an unhappy - or at the very least, boring - marriage. But she did arrange all those tutors for Ada, and accompanied her to soirees with Babbage and more.

Also, the change in tone of biography to getting into the technical details of Lady Lovelace and her contemporary’s thinking about machines and mathematics made for harder reading.

The link between Babbage's refusal and her illness seems pretty obvious, but the biographer stays with the facts and does not venture into hypothesis.

Maybe my disappointment has to do with some kind of shattering of the illusion of the possibilities of engineering and mathematics, that may carry over into the aftertaste of the book. How these realms of possibility may seem like magic to those who are not in the know. Even this, Ada foresaw. As Alan Turing cites her, and calls this “The Lovelace Objection”: machines are incapable of independent learning. She wrote:

“The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical reactions or truths. Its province is to assist us in making available what we are already acquainted with.”

So yes: Google is very helpful. Including Google Maps. But a take over by some kind of Artificial Intelligence generated autonomous computerised being? Auto pilot? That kind of magic will never happen. Because any system will always, in the end, no matter how quick, how much data you feed it, how large its processor or memory will be, just proceed however we instructed it.

That may be disillusional, yes; then again, there is also reassurance in it. Creativity, truly creating new things, will always remain the unique terrain of sentient, living breathing beings.

Then again, I guess I may have been hoping to receive more of the brilliance, the genius that she was made out to be. More inspiration, more insight.

What I got was an unbalanced, dry and distant biography that left me wanting. Maybe a more personal approach from Essinger would have worked better? Maybe a female writer should have done the hard work under dire circumstances of Annabella and Ada more justice? Or maybe it was just very hard to write a biography, when Annabella burnt many of Ada's letters.
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