Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. If you’re scratching your head and saying, “Well, that’s great, but who was Ada Lovelace?”—here are some titles that will help answer that question. (For a quick take on her unconventional character, read Hannah Fry’s “Not Your Typical Role Model: Ada Lovelace the 19th Century Programmer.”)
The subtitle says it all—almost. Lovelace continues to fascinate us both because of her parentage and her remarkable scientific achievements as a programmer working alongside computer pioneer Charles Babbage. In his biography, Essinger attempts to solidify her place in Babbage’s work but also delves deeply into her personal life. Our reviewer found the writing style a bit awkward, and wished more questions about Lovelace had been answered, but still, this will whet readers’ appetites for more.
Lovelace and Babbage, relegated to the footnotes of history, are brought to life in an entertaining and comic graphic-novel adventure told mostly in footnotes. With their steam-powered Analytical Engine, the dynamic duo solves a financial collapse, entertains Queen Victoria, and frees Victorian England of typos in popular fiction. Snippets of primary documents and notes about how their Analytical Engine worked lend an educational note to a thoroughly entertaining enterprise.
Isaacson’s cosmology of computing begins with an appropriate Big Bang moment: Lovelace’s comment in an 1843 letter to Babbage that mathematical calculating machines would one day become general-purpose devices that link “the operations of matter and the abstract mental processes”—an astoundingly prescient prediction of the rise of modern computers. A rebuttal to the notion of inventors as lone, mostly male geniuses, The Innovators builds on the work of Lovelace and Babbage to picture the universe of computing as collaborative, with key contributions from sometimes unheralded women.
Books for Youth
Ada Byron Lovelace: The Lady and the Computer, by Mary Dodson Wade
In this older title, Wade recounts Lovelace’s professional triumphs but is also gives time to her personal problems: extreme mood swings, strange delusions, and compulsive gambling. Hey, nobody’s perfect right? A pedantic prose style seems an odd contrast to such interesting source material, but the documentation is decent, making this a good choice for young report writers or computer history buffs.
Philosophy, Invention, and Engineering, edited by Derek Hall
More than a simple collective biography, this provides some fairly deep content about Lovelace and Babbage, as well as Aristotle, James Watt, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Fritz Haber, Alan Turing, and Jonas Salk. Biographical and career information are interspersed with key dates, time lines, photographs, fact boxes, and explanatory diagrams. Rich in synthesized information, this book provides context for a key group of scientists.
The Case of the Missing Moonstone, by Jordan Stratford and illustrated by Kelly Murphy
Facts have been changed to suit the narrative in this middle-grade mystery set in an alternate, nineteenth-century London, but readers who love a mannered narrative and Victorian setting may well enjoy the exploits of detectives Ada Byron, 11, and Mary Godwin, 14. Indeed, while our reviewer found the detective-story plot somewhat unconvincing, the two protagonists are by turn entertainingly eccentric (that would be Ada) and perceptive and sympathetic (Mary). End notes offer useful perspective on the people and period in real life.
Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine, by Laurie Wallmark and illustrated by April Chu
Her father, Romantic poet Lord Byron, was bewitched by language, but numbers captured Ada Byron Lovelace’s imagination. Raised by a mother with a passion for geometry, young Ada filled journals with invention ideas, including a flying machine. This picture book, which will receive a starred review in the November 1 issue of Booklist, is a beautiful tribute to the whole life of the female computer pioneer.