Ada’s Algorithm by James Essinger suggests that our world could have been a very different place, if Ada Lovelace’s discoveries had been valued as they should’ve already a couple of hundred years ago. Ada was a victim of gender stereotypes – the image of women as fragile and unintelligent. Her thoughts were forgotten until much later rediscovered by Alan Turing, who officially started what we now know as the age of IT.
James Essinger paints a fascinating picture of a young woman consumed by her interest in mathematics and analytical thinking. Ada was the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, an incurable womanizer and celebrated poet, who died alone and in debt. Lord Byron was no doubt passionate in what he did, but so was Ada. Her life was marked by poor health and over dominating mother, yet she didn’t let these hindrances prevent her from developing her brains and gaining knowledge on the one single topic she was interested above everything else – maths.
Ada Lovelace was a wealthy woman and thus had access to knowledge that would have been impossible to obtain for women (or men) of lower classes in that era. Yet she had to manoeuvre carefully to avoid the pitfalls set by her mother or the society to remain a respectable lady.
Essinger presents some of Ada’s correspondence with Charles Babbage, the man credited for inventing the computer. Babbage created the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine. Essinger makes clear Babbage wouldn’t have made it without Ada’s help. When Babbage declined her further help, he quite possibly also prevented the success of his inventions for the coming two centuries.
Essinger’s book on Ada concentrates on her mathematical interests. There is very little about her personal life, except for her difficult relationship with her mother. Ada was married to William Lord King and had three children with him. Her husband recognized her intellect and let her pursue her interests. Her children and their lives are not touched on. Perhaps this is best – it really accentuates how the book is telling about Ada Lovelace’s “career” (although it wasn’t understood as such at the time) and not about her personal life.
Ada’s life was short like her father’s. Despite that, they both had a significant effect on the world. If Ada would never have had the chance to meet Charles Babbage and write the Notes in which she outlined the future of IT, would I be now writing this text on my PC? History is quite a devious thing. So very small steps can have such big impact, but it is most often impossible to realize the effect at the time of the event.