Ada: A Life and a Legacy
By Dorothy Stein
Reviewed by Daniel Hindes
Ada Augusta Lovelace was an unusual woman. This much everyone can agree on. How unusual is an interesting question. One person, a professor of math at a local college, upon hearing that I was researching Charles Babbage for a course on the History of Technology, said something to the effect of, “You have to look up Ada Lovelace! You know, she really invented the counting machines. Charles stole the plans from her, but because she was a woman in Victorian England, he got all the credit.” And indeed, Ada Lovelace is most often mentioned today in connection with Charles Babbage. Dan Halacy, in his book Charles Babbage: Father of the Computer, writes, “[Ada] had one of the keenest mathematical minds off the day…” and goes on to relate how Babbage used his computers to work out a betting system for horse racing for Ada and her husband. Later Halacy claims that Ada found and corrected serious problems in the design of Babbage’s engine pertaining to the calculation of Bernoulli numbers. Ada is further credited with a number of original insights into the functioning of the as yet non-existent machine. The Encyclopedia Britannica (2002 edition) even credits her with writing the first computer program for it.
Babbage, dubbed one of the greatest inventors of all time, was a certified genius who designed a mechanical computer about 100 years before an electrical one was produced. He only remains obscure because he failed to build his machine in his lifetime. Had he succeeded, he would have literally changed the entire course of history. When one of his designs was finally assembled, it worked flawlessly. Charles’ biggest problem at the time was that he needed thousands of identical, tiny, gears, and could not afford to have them manufactured. There were at that time only a small number of machinists who were capable of that level of work, and they wanted top dollar. Charles, though comfortably wealthy, did not have the means to finance it entirely himself. Adjusting for inflation over almost two centuries is difficult, but approximating, we can say that Charles Babbage lived off the interest of a fortune of about $10 million, but needed about $100 million to build the machine. He turned to the government for help, and got the equivalent of several million with which he made a start. But funding dried up, and the machines remained diagrams in Babbage’s numerous notebooks. Enter Ada Lovelace.
Ada Lovelace was famous before she was born, the only legitimate child of the celebrity Romantic poet Lord Byron. How her mother managed to divorce Byron while keeping control of her fortune and child as a woman in Victorian England is a story in itself. Ada grew up as a bright, lively girl under the tight control of her domineering mother. She had an interest in math, and studied algebra, first under the instruction of a private tutor, later by correspondence with a university professor. There were several things unusual about this. First, that a woman during that time period was actually interested in higher math at all is striking. There are only a few other examples known during the entire Victorian period in England. Second, that she was not forbidden the subject by her parents and later husband is remarkable. Ada translated a paper written by an Italian engineer and mathematician L. F. Menabrea (in collaboration with Babbage himself) describing Babbage’s Analytical Engine (the name Babbge gave his cog wheel computer). In addition, she wrote 36,000 words in the form of Notes appended to her translation. Ada’s reputation rests mostly on these notes. Ada had a number of health problems, and died at age 36. So just how much did she accomplish in the realm of math in her short life?
There are a number of areas where the biographical story gets muddled. Babbage wrote a paper on the probability of betting. Ada lost money betting on horse racing. Did the one have anything to do with the other? Ada translated the paper Menabrea wrote describing Babbage’s Analytical Engine (the name he gave his cog wheel computer). In addition, she wrote 36,000 words in the form of Notes appended to her translation. Ada’s reputation rests mostly on these notes. Did she write them on her own, or did she have help? To get to the bottom of this, Dorothy Stein performed exhaustive research, going back to the many letters between Ada and Babbage, as well as others. In her introduction, Stein notes:
“The most important lesson I learned in the course of my investigations is that there is no substitute for inspection of the original documents. In some cases, examination of the original can reveal what even a photocopy might tend to conceal. It sometimes happens, for example, that letters or other papers are dated not by the writer, or at least not at the time of the writing, but years later, and by the recipient or his heirs, very possibly inaccurately. A difference in the inks used, not revealed in a copy, will often show up on inspection of the original and provide the clue to this practice even when the handwritings are too similar to be distinguished. Thus some puzzling distortions in the course of events can be eliminated. A rarer and more striking instance of the extra information to be gained by handling the original documents occurred in the case of a letter that has been interpreted as a cryptic message from Ada to Babbage, perhaps pertaining to a gambling conspiracy. Inspection reveals that a page has been partially torn away, and a slightly newer blank piece of paper of similar color carefully glued in its place. (This is a frequent practice of the librarians at the British Library in preparing damaged documents for use.) It was the interruption of the text, caused by the missing piece, that made the message seem so strange.”
Going back to the source and trying to discover who Ada Lovelace really was produced this very interesting book. It is solidly written, meticulously researched, and builds a convincing and rounded picture. It also leaves Ada somewhat diminished as a historical figure. Noting that earlier biographers with no training in math apparently could not distinguish a worksheet of calculus problems from a research paper in mathematics, Stein appraises Ada as a mediocre student whose interest in math waxed and waned as her life had its ups and downs. Her letters to professor Augustus De Morgan show her getting stuck repeatedly at the same places, and struggling to understand certain abstract symbolic relationships (examples are given in the text) of the type your typical 12th grader today learns in an AP Calculus class. Her “brilliant mind” frequently made intuitive leaps; “Ada had great difficulty getting beyond ‘first queries’ and acquiring a firm grasp of mathematical practice” (page 84). Yet because of her social status – she was a countess – and charming enthusiasm, her contemporaries, including De Morgan and Babbage, were very kind and encouraging to her efforts, inflating both her own estimation of her abilities and ours.
Stein shows that this is also true of Ada’s work on Babbage’s Analytic engine. Going over the entire extant correspondence, Stein finds that Adaand Babbage were writing back and forth sometimes twice a day during the period that Ada wrote her notes on Babbage’s engine. Every sentence in the final is indeed her own writing, but Babbage coached the entire process, reading each section and gently suggesting changes. When he overstepped the bounds and made a change himself, she was quite upset. “I am much annoyed at your having changed my Note. You know I am always willing to make any required alterations myself, but I cannot endure another person to meddle with my sentences.” she wrote. (page 108) It was a collaboration, but it is also clear who was doing the heavy lifting. With the paper off to the printers, Ada was exuberant and wanted to continue the collaboration, volunteering to become Babbage’s PR person in publicizing his machine. Against this background, Babbage’s polite but firm refusal is perhaps understandable. The record shows that it would have been a lot easier for him to simply write things himself.
Taken as a whole, Ada’s life is a tragedy on a number of levels. In 300 pages Dorothy Stein makes this clear with a detailed narrative of every phase of her life, and unlike this review the story covers far more than her brief collaboration with Babbage. It should be of interest both to those interested in Babbage and early computer history and readers interested in the historical period in general.