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A Female Genius, book review: Lord Byron's daughter and the dawn of the computer age

Some have disparaged Ada Lovelace's contribution to the development of computer theory, but author James Essinger is adamant that 'genius' is the right word.
Written by Colin Barker, Contributor
A Female Genius: How Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron's daughter, started the computer age • By James Essinger • Gibson Square Books • 256 pages • ISBN 190809661 • £14.99

People who habitually fire off letters to newspapers, or comment on websites, usually do so to vent their spleen: having written a few well-chosen words or paragraphs, they can then (hopefully) relax. If you read something that makes you write a whole book, you must have been very angry indeed.

As James Essinger explains in the foreword to A Female Genius, he wrote it having read a book that disparaged the contribution of Ada Lovelace to the history of computing. Essinger notes that plenty of others have been happy to belittle the achievements of Lord Byron's daughter.

This view of Lovelace could not be more inaccurate, says Essinger, who had to look no further than Charles Babbage's opinion of her strengths. In an 1843 letter to Michael Faraday, Babbage said of Ada: "[T]hat enchantress who has thrown her magical spells around the most abstract of Sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects (in our own country at least) could have exerted over it."

So what of the book itself: does A Female Genius right the wrong that has apparently been done to Ada? Yes it does, and in some style. I found the book to be fascinating and entertaining, and even occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. It covers a lot of ground in its 256 pages, but is concise and well written.

Mad, bad and dangerous to know

The story begins, naturally enough, with Ada's father, Lord Byron, who in the 1820s was easily the most famous man in England, if not the world. As well as famous good looks and abundant poetic talent, Byron had an enormous ego, and spending habits that would leave him perpetually in debt.

To deal with the debts, Byron needed to marry, and marry well, and almost on cue along came Anne Isabella (Annabella) Milbanke, the daughter of a wealthy family.

Frequently described as "not pretty" or "plain", you would not have guessed so from her portraits (Essinger's book is very well illustrated throughout). But Anabella's face shows something else: great strength of character, which would be needed when she married Byron.

One evening, unknown to the sleeping poet, it had been arranged that Annabella, Ada and a maidservant would take a coach from the stable and steal away in the night. Essinger makes this escape story sound like the risky venture it doubtless was, with the two ladies anxious in case Byron woke.

Ada, Countess of Lovelace, in 1840, aged 25.
Image: Wikipedia

Ada would never see Byron again but, remarkably, her mother would keep Ada appraised of Byron's movements and doings through the rest of his short life. Essinger is very clear that Anabella and Ada both saw Byron as the husband and father he was, and felt that, whatever his failings, he should be fairly treated.

But as far as Anabella was concerned, it was in Ada's best interests that Byron should only experience his daughter from a distance.

In telling Ada's story, Essinger provides a lucid picture of the times and their context. Her family belonged to a London high society that "consisted of barely five thousand people, many of whom were related to one another by marriage or infidelity". As for the million or so people comprising the rest of the city's population, they, "like the vast majority of Britons at that time, scraped by on a diet rarely much above starvation level".

Laying the groundwork for today's world

Ada Lovelace is now regarded as one of the founders of the computer age, but recognition was a long time coming. During her lifetime, and for some time after, women had no place in the world of science and engineering as far as most men were concerned.

While she was fortunate in having the support of her mother in her work, Ada's achievements were all the more impressive in an era where men were the workers, the builders and the scientists, and women were meant to look decorous and care for the children.

For her part, Ada was fascinated in almost everything that the forbidden worlds of science and technology had to offer. The Victorians were also enthralled by fads like mesmerism and phrenology, and Ada was no exception. However she struggled to find a channel for her energies until June 1833 when her friend, Mary Somerville -- the first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society -- introduced her to Charles Babbage.

Ada Lovelace in 1852, the year of her death from uterine cancer.
Image: Wikipedia

He invited her to see the prototype of his Difference Engine and she became enthralled with the possibilities it offered. Between 1842 and 1843, Ada translated Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea's memoir on Babbage's proposed Analytical Engine and appended a set of notes that explained the machine's function. This was no simple job since even other scientists had difficulty with the concepts involved. The notes are longer than the memoir itself and include a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers -- the basis of her fame as the world's first computer programmer.

For a time, Ada and Babbage worked closely together, but they also had their disagreements -- notably when, on publication of his paper, Babbage tried to include a criticism of the government's treatment of his engine. Ada was angered when he wanted to include her as co-author of a paper that was all Babbage's work.

By this time, Ada was seriously ill with the uterine cancer that would eventually kill her in November 1852, aged just 36. During her last months, Ada's redoubtable mother Anabella excluded her friends and persuaded her to embrace religion. A sad end for the woman who was to have such a profound influence on the development of the modern world.

Further reading

The Cogwheel Brainby Doron Swade

Ada's Algorithm: How Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron's daughter, started the computer ageby James Essinger (2014 US edition with 5,000 additional words)

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