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Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist

Christopher Hollings, Ursula Martin, and Adrian Rice
Bodleian Library, University of Oxford
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The Basic Library List Committee suggests that undergraduate mathematics libraries consider this book for acquisition.

[Reviewed by
Alice Petillo
, on

This biography of August Ada King (neé Byron), Countess of Lovelace (a.k.a. Ada Lovelace, 1815–1852), sometimes referred to as the first computer programmer, is the result of a collaboration between the Clay Mathematical Institute and the Bodleian Library. The authors use numerous excerpts from mathematical papers and personal correspondence, along with extensive images and portraits, to bring the story of Ada’s intellectual development to life. Included are facsimile excerpts from letters in Ada’s handwriting, book images, and geometric models. The abundant use of primary source visuals makes this a unique contribution to the list of other well-known biographies of Ada Lovelace.

The preface underscores the importance of the unique collection of family papers in the Lovelace-Byron archive as a primary source for the authors as they situate Ada in her historical context, and concludes with a list of important people in Ada’s life, presented as “Dramatis Personae.” The list is almost a Who’s Who of important figures in the political, scientific, and social life of the Victorian era, many of whom had direct connections to Ada and her work. This list serves as a helpful reference in understanding the network in which Ada’s life and ideas were cultivated and bore fruit.

The authors advance Ada’s story in nine chapters in a compelling way, beginning with her childhood as the daughter of none other than poet Lord (George Gordon) Byron and Anne Isabella Millbank. The biography describes her adult life of marriage and motherhood, her position as one of the leading mathematical thinkers of her day, and finally her death from cancer at the tragically young age of 36. Her intellectual curiosity surmounted her lack of formal university training, generally not available to women in her day, and won her the support and encouragement of men who were able to answer her questions and assist in her intellectual development. 

Of particular importance to her mathematical development were approximately 60 letters exchanged with Augustus De Morgan, the adult Ada’s mathematics tutor and a professor at the University College of London. The book incorporates excerpts from these letters and others, with personages such as Charles Babbage (inventor of the Analytical Engine), throughout the text. Ada is best known today for her article on the design of the Analytical Engine (which was never actually built), consisting primarily of a translation from the French of a brief paper by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea. Her extensive appendices, much longer than Menabrea’s paper, reveal not only her complete grasp of Babbage’s design but her prescient appreciation of the possibilities of mechanical calculators and what we now call computer science. Ada Lovelace’s story, as a young woman who began as a child prodigy and developed into a forerunner in the emerging field of computer science, still inspires today.

Alice Petillo is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Marymount University.

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