Arts

Book Review

‘Ada’s Algorithm’ by James Essinger

Ada Lovelace is the consummate misunderstood genius.

Growing up among the upper crust of 19th-century Britain, she was ground down by an overbearing mother who feared Ada’s imagination and punished her creativity.

As a mathematician collaborating with Charles Babbage, the man credited with inventing the computer, she proved herself as his equal or better. But he failed to appreciate her sufficiently, and rejected her request to be his partner in developing the invention.

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Throughout history, she has been often overlooked by scholars who refused to consider her contribution to computer science, sometimes dismissing her as a madwoman. Enter James Essinger, whose biography, “Ada’s Algorithm,” seeks to correct the record, paying glowing tribute to the woman he calls “brilliantly prescient.”

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Although focused on Ada’s unique talent for mathematical theory, the book is a cradle-to-grave history that begins by dishing dirt on her father, the poet Lord Byron, who became famous as much for his sexual peccadilloes — including, Essinger notes repeatedly, an incestuous affair with his half-sister — as for his lyricism.

Ada’s uptight and judgmental mother, Annabella, was an odd match for Byron. Essinger describes their courtship in clunky, strangely casual language: “Annabella and Byron became friends, sort of. It’s not entirely clear how, but she was getting better known socially, and Byron got to know her.”

They married, but Annabella split with the philandering poet when Ada was only about 6 weeks old; Ada never saw him again. She was left with her micromanaging mother, who controlled every detail of her childhood and who, in a nearly literal sense, clipped her daughter’s wings. When 12-year-old Ada became obsessed with the idea of inventing a steam-powered flying machine and began poring over bird wings and mapping out her own human-size versions, Annabella chastised her so thoroughly that Ada dropped the subject.

Annabella’s objection, Essinger tells us, stemmed from her fear that if Ada’s imagination were allowed to run wild, she would grow up to emulate the sins of her similarly imaginative father.

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Ada still managed to develop a personality that was charming, quirky, and not a little egotistical, since her prescience applied to her own talents as well as to the merits of Babbage’s proto-computer. She told him, “That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal, as time will show.”

But owing perhaps to her oppressive upbringing, she saw herself as Babbage’s assistant, not his equal, even though it is clear that she understood the computer and its practical potential far more clearly than Babbage or anyone else did at the time. Had Babbage shared her vision, or had he allowed her to play a more central role, Essinger posits, the digital revolution might have started in the 1840s — not a century later, as was the case.

Ada realized that Babbage’s computer prototype, which he called the Analytical Engine, could go beyond mathematical calculations to manipulate other kinds of information, yielding profound effects throughout the sciences and arts.

At its best, “Ada’s Algorithm” offers a revealing firsthand look into Ada’s life and her relationship with Babbage, relying heavily on their journal entries and letters to each other. At its worst, it reads like a collection of encyclopedia entries about the people and places surrounding them. Ada herself is regularly abandoned for digressions that amount to a who’s who of high-society London.

Often repetitive, the narrative circles its key point — that Ada deserves credit for her genius — without always advancing it. The language is frequently unwieldy and the insights fairly obvious, as when Essinger argues that sexism may have had something to do with Ada being underestimated: “[S]hould we be surprised that men, who have after all often for centuries been putting women down and relegating women to a secondary role in politics, culture, and all branches of the arts and sciences, often feel profoundly uncomfortable about allowing Ada a highly significant place in the pantheon of the greats of the history of computing?”

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And as Essinger acknowledges, he’s not the first to recognize Ada’s true brilliance. A software language developed in the 1970s was named “Ada” in her honor. A modern-day organization supporting women in technology is called “The Ada Initiative.” His own account of one of the most innovative minds of the 19th century could benefit from some of Ada’s freshness of perspective.

Jennifer Latson is writing a narrative nonfiction book about Williams syndrome. Follow her on Twitter @JennieLatson.