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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Has the Curse Been Broken? Ada Lovelace: The World’s First Computer Programmer by Beverley Adams

If you’ve been reading my Women in Science column here and there over the last decade, you’ll have been subjected to my intermittent bemoaning of the fact that there has yet to be an Ada Lovelace biography that really hits the nail on the head in terms of providing a good mix of who she was, the struggles she faced, and what she accomplished. That isn’t to say that the books on her that have been published in the last forty years have been bad, merely that the balance hasn’t been quite right, at least for me. Essinger’s Ada’s Algorithm (2014) didn’t have quite enough Ada in it, and both Stein’s Ada: A Life and Legacy (1986) and Toole’s Ada: The Enchantress of Numbers (1998) were a bit too polarized in their takes, albeit in very different directions.

After Essinger, there was an explosion of books on Lovelace, including Dreaming in Code: Ada Byron Lovelace, Computer Pioneer (2022), Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist (2018), Ada Lovelace: A Life from Beginning to End (2019), In Byron’s Wake: The Turbulent Lives of Lord Byron’s Wife and Daughter (2018), Charles and Ada (2019, also by Essinger), and the novels Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace (2018), and Ada Lovelace: The Countess Who Dreamed in Numbers (2019). I bought them, and put them dutifully on the Women in Science bookshelves, but the sheer volume and rate of them put me in a state of Lovelace burnout. Disappointed too many times, I had resolved somewhere in my deepest self that I would get to them, maybe sometime in the early 2030s.

Then Beverley Adams entered the arena, with Ada Lovelace: The World’s First Computer Programmer (2023), and I had to rethink my unconscious vow. I had read her first book, The Rebel Suffragette: The Life of Edith Rigby (2021), and enjoyed her style, perspective, and approach to her subject, so I thought to myself, if she has decided to tackle Ada, perhaps this will be the book to finally end the curse, and steeled myself to once again enter an Ada biography.

The first fifth of the book is a detailed presentation of the Byron family stretching back generations before Ada’s time, which made me at first wonder if this wasn’t going to head straight into the same problems as Essinger’s first book: too much other, more famous people and not enough Ada, but as soon as Adams swung to telling the story of Ada, the amount of time she gave over to the Byron lineage made complete sense as an authorial decision. Ada, as portrayed by Adams, is an individual hemmed in on all sides by the efforts of others to control her life, so as to keep her from the extremes of behavior that they felt was baked-in to her Byronic blood. Her mother comes off as the probably well-meaning but ultimately draconian architect of Ada’s cage, keeping her from other children, from outside activities, from certain subjects deemed to exciting for her Byronic temperament, and from knowledge of her father, all with the aid of a rotating cast of characters who were part teachers and part informants.

Where Adams is at her best is in tracing the after-effects of this very particular childhood, as they spilled into her relations with her husband and children, the fiasco that was her attempt to create a mathematically fool-proof horse betting system, and her repeated bad luck with a cavalcade of individuals who used her as a means to attaining their own objectives. Much that strikes a reader as contradictory or inexplicable in Ada’s life path is rendered comprehensible by Adams’s gift for biographical narration, and balanced sense of how well-intentioned assumptions about Ada’s genetic heritage resulted in pervasive harm that could have been avoided with a little more honesty, offered a little earlier on. I feel like I understand Ada and her motivations at last thanks to Adams’s insight, after two decades of trying and failing through other books to get a handle on what, fundamentally, drove her.

“But what about ‘The World’s First Computer Programmer’ part, Dale, when are you going to talk about that?”

*Sigh*. As much as getting into discussions about who qualifies as the "first" to do a particular thing is about my least favorite thing to do, I suppose we have to. Fundamentally, the reason that I picked up this book was to understand Ada as an individual better - there are plenty of places you can go to see the micro-debates about her place in computer history, from essays saying that she was little more than a pawn of Babbage who was used by him to act as an eloquent and well-connected mouthpiece for his ideas about the Analytic Engine, to those who say her Note G represents, effectively, the world’s first computer program, making her the world’s first computer programmer.

In spite of this latter claim being in the title of the book, engaging with that debate doesn’t seem to be Adams’s primary interest, and she rests content with spelling out why some people (including her) believe that Ada genuinely deserves that title, with a brief mention of why others disagree with that assertion, without going into detailed analysis about what Babbage said in his memoirs and Ada in her letters about the extent of Babbage’s role in the Bernoulli algorithm, or the whole complicated tale about whether Heron of Alexandria or Joseph Marie Jacquard might perhaps have valid earlier claims to the title than either Babbage or Ada. These issues, and the spirited debate around them, are well represented elsewhere, and Adams’s choice was either to dig into all of the minutiae, thereby dragging the main psychological thrust of her book to a halt, or to reference the controversy and then get on with the main story, and from the perspective of narration, I really can’t fault her overly much for doing the latter. Maybe in the second edition, an appendix can be added going into the nitty gritty for those interested in the points and counterpoints of the issue?

At the end of the day, can we say that the curse of Ada scholarship is at long last lifted? I would say, from the point of view of Ada as a person, the answer is yes. This is a book I would be happy putting into any of my curious students’ hands as an introduction to her life and the complicated tangle of systematic restriction and misinformation that characterized much of it, requiring her to claw her way repeatedly to the light only to have her body, friends, or family find novel ways to upend her newfound balance. It is quick to read (which I’ve found is a must these days for loaning non-fiction books to high schoolers), and engagingly told, full of dramatic characters, rogues and heroes both, and has running through it a well-drawn portrayal of the elaborate ties binding families in early Victorian England that renders comprehensible so many of the twists and turns of the Byron family fortune. If you want to know about algorithms or programming, you can go to Stein’s book or sleuth about online. If you want to know about Ada, this book is a great way to make a first acquaintance.


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