1 April 2019 Susannah

Ada Lovelace & The Analytical Engine

I have been deep in the ‘Byronic world’ this past month. I fell in love with Byron’s poems as a teenager, sat in my room learning many by heart, and just revelled in his wonderful language. Over the years I’ve read several biographies about the infamous poet, his extraordinary love life, his travels and adventures. I knew a little of his wife, and was also aware that biographies had been written about his remarkable daughter, Ada, Countess of Lovelace who, like her father, died aged 36.

However, I knew I needed to read much more to prepare for a talk I’m soon to give as part of a series offered by the Royal Society of NSW and the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts on ‘Remarkable Women in Science’. Hence my reading about Ada and her mother. Annabella Milbanke, who had the dubious honour of becoming Byron’s wife, was a keen mathematician – this at a time when girls were rarely taught any maths. Byron called her his “Princess of Parallelograms”. She was very astute with money and a very bright woman.

Byron left for Europe when his only legitimate daughter, Ada, was a tiny baby – she never knew her father as he died when she was 8. Her mother, worried that Ada was too imaginative, decided that studying maths might keep her daughter’s mind from poetry and other dangerous subjects. Ada became a brilliant mathematician. Her work with Charles Babbage led to the development of the computer, but it was Ada who visualised just to what lengths Babbage’s ‘Analytical Machine’ might go, and who could picture substituting letters and other symbols for numbers to enlarge the scope of his design. Ada has often been described as ‘the mother of computers’.

In Byron’s Wake: The Turbulent Lives of Lord Byron’s Wife and Daughter by the excellent biographer Miranda Seymour, is a full, absorbing account of the two women and of Ada’s contribution to computing. I then moved on to Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace by Jennifer Chiaverini, which told the story as fiction. I enjoyed this book, which has had excellent reviews and was chosen by Amazon as one of its ‘best books of December 2017’, but I preferred the more factual accounts of Ada’s life.

And finally, there was A Female Genius: How Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s Daughter, Started the Computer Age. This was an excellent read and made the subject very clear to non-scientific readers like me. Interestingly I can even introduce my granddaughter to Ada soon, for there are several books for very young readers – Ada Lovelace: Poet of Science, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine, Little People, Big Dreams: Ada Lovelace and The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.

What would Lord Byron have thought of his granddaughter’s fame starting to eclipse his own? It’s been a fascinating reading journey and I’m looking forward to sharing my enthusiasm at my talk on 2 May in Sydney.

Do you love Byron’s poems? Were you aware of Ada Lovelace’s scientific contribution? Tell me your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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https://susannahfullerton.com.au/ada-lovelace-the-analytical-engine
Featured image credit- Ada Lovelace and the Analytical Engine. Ada Lovelace 1843 or 1850 a rare daguerreotype by Antoine Claudet, https://blogs.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/adalovelace/2015/10/14/only-known-photographs-of-ada-lovelace-in-bodleian-display/ Reproduction courtesy of Geoffrey Bond., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63293739, and The Marvellous Analytical Engine- How It Works, http://sydneypadua.com/2dgoggles/the-marvellous-analytical-engine-how-it-works/
Body image credit- Watercolour portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, circa 1840, possibly by Alfred Edward Chalon, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28131684

Comments (4)

  1. Susannah, you may be aware that a major computer language, Ada, was named for this talented first programmer. Vladimir Nabokov’s last (and not very good) novel was titled Ada. This book, however, seemed to have been named for his favorite butterfly. (He was a lepidopterist.)

    I don’t know if you caught the presence of a young Charles Babbage in my series. He was the one presenting the idea of an “information mechanism” to a befuddled group of English scientists. I wanted desperately to work in Ada somehow, but she was of the next generation.

    I hope you included Mary Anning, the great paleontologist, in your talk! As a four- or five-year-old, she likely met Jane Austen in Lyme Regis when Jane was living there. Her father was a cabinetmaker as well as a fossil hunter. We know he bid on a furniture repair for the Austens, and the family sold fossils in the local market.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, I knew about the computer language called Ada and loved the way you brought young Charles Babbage into your book.
      And I also knew about the Mary Anning / Austen connection. Jane Austen lived in such interesting times, so you never stop learning about her era. Thanks Collins.

  2. Rosaleen Kirby

    Hi Susannah,

    I also fell in love with Byron’s poetry when I was a teenager (at least with Childe Harold Canto 1V, one of my A level texts), but I’m ashamed to say I knew nothing of his remarkable daughter. I love hearing about girls who were brilliant at Maths and Science before it was even considered worthwhile to educate daughters. Go Ada! One day I might even get round to reading one of the books about her ………….

    Rose x

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I got no Byron at school, so you were lucky! Do think of coming along to the talk and learning about Ada – she was an amazing woman!

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