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Book Review: A Female Genius

A must read for computer history buffs and computer science students looking for female role models.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   12-03-2015
Ada, Countess of Lovelace, in 1840, aged 25.
Image: Wikipedia
A Female Genius: How Ada Lovelace Started the Computer Age by James Essinger, published by Gibson Square Books.

James Essinger's “A Female Genius: How Ada Lovelace Started the Computer Age” is a good read for computer history buffs. In Essinger’s accessible biography, we meet a talented yet eccentric young woman whose brilliant explanation of renowned mathematician Charles Babbage's unfinished "Analytical Engine" included ideas for its use that even the English inventor hadn't imagined.

Where Babbage saw a way to flawlessly compute log and trig tables, Lovelace saw a cog-wheel computer capable of composing music and graphics, given the right algorithms, writing that it "weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves." Lovelace developed a computer algorithm in her extensive notes on the "Analytical Engine" because of which she is recognized as the world's first computer programmer.
 
Almost two centuries ago, Lovelace signaled the emergence of computer science which she called "poetical science." Lovelace was rediscovered in the 1930s by computer pioneers such as Alan Turing. In the late seventies, the U.S. Department of Defense developed a software language called "Ada" in honour of her achievements.
 
The Competing Influence of Her Parents
 
Lovelace's mother, Annabella Byron, was the intellectual, mathematical, sober counterpoint to her flamboyant father, Lord Byron, the Romantic poet, who called his wife the “Princess of Parallelograms.” A month after Lovelace's birth, Lady Byron moved their daughter out of their London house, and away from Lord Byron’s influence. Essinger skillfully probes Lovelace's childhood, her mother’s fraught relationship with Lord Byron, Lord Byron's role in Lovelace's life — she never actually met him while growing up, but clearly Byron had an influence on Lovelace's thinking. Byron died in 1824 when Lovelace was eight.
 
Essinger writes that Annabella Byron tried to suppress her daughter’s "dangerous" imagination, which she saw as “potentially destructive and coming from the Byrons.” Instead, she drilled into Lovelace a discipline for arithmetic, music, and French, according to the biography.
 
But Lovelace reconciled the competing tugs of her parents’ influence. On January 5, 1841, she asked, “What is Imagination?” Two things, she thought. First, “the combining faculty,” which “seizes points in common, between subjects having no apparent connection,” and then, she wrote, “Imagination is the Discovering Faculty, pre-eminently. It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science.”
 
Lovelace lived life full tilt: she rode horses, played the harp and enjoyed poetry. She married a fellow aristocrat, had three children, but rejected the traditional roles imposed on Victorian women: keeping busy instead with her mathematical studies. She combined her mother's mathematical genius with some of her father's poetic and creative insight.
 
The Analytical Engine
 
Lovelace’s break came when she met Charles Babbage, the famous mathematician and mechanical engineer, who would become her mentor. In June 1833, 17-year-old Lovelace attended a glittering London socialite party, and there was Babbage, a widower in his forties, who spoke excitedly of an invention he called the “Difference Machine.” Parts of Babbage's unfinished mechanical calculator are on display now in the London Science Museum. Intrigued by the prototype, Lovelace struck up a correspondence with Babbage about its potential, and her own mathematical studies. 
 
After Babbage's attempt at making the "Difference Engine" collapsed, he designed a more complex machine called the “Analytical Engine” and Lovelace was its expositor. Lovelace translated mathematician Luigi Federico Menabrea's 8,000-word paper on the "Analytic Machine" from French, and added her own notes. Lovelace's translation, along with her extensive notes, was published in 1843, and represent her greatest contribution to computer science. She described how Babbage’s device would work, illuminating its foundations in the Jacquard loom. She developed a computer algorithm for the "Analytical Engine" to calculate a long sequence of Bernoulli numbers.
 
"The science of operations, as derived from mathematics more especially, is a science of itself, and has its own abstract truth and value,” Lovelace wrote. Essinger interprets this line in his biography, writing, Lovelace is here seeking to do nothing less than invent the science of computing, and separate it from the science of mathematics. What she calls ‘the science of operations’ is indeed in effect computing.”
 
Babbage saw his machine merely as a calculator; only Lovelace saw its true potential: that it was really the first step towards a computer. “The Analytical Engine does not occupy common ground with mere calculating machines,” Lovelace wrote. “It holds a position wholly on its own.”
 
STEM Careers and Role Models
 
What better role model for women in STEM fields than a 19th Century mathematician who had the genius to foresee the digital computing age?
 
“She understood back in 1843 what a computer was. She understood that this machine Babbage had invented could be used for anything. She intuited that linking the real world and abstract mathematics through a machine that could calculate things impossible for humans opened up a whole new realm of science,” Essinger writes.
 
Fittingly, Ada Lovelace Day was founded in 2009 to celebrate the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths.
 
Uttara Choudhury is Editor, North America for TV 18’s Firstpost news site. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism in the University of Westminster, in London.

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