The Enchantress of Numbers, Prophet of the Computer Age

by Betty Alexandra Toole, Ed.D.

Review by Cathleen Myers

The marriage of Romantic poet Lord Byron to icy mathematician Annabella Milbanke in 1815 may have been an unqualified disaster but it have one happy result - their daughter Augusta Ada, the future Countess of Lovelace, one of the genuine prophets of the Computer Age. An amateur mathematician and science writer of genius, she became the friend and patroness of mathematician-scientist Charles Babbage, inventor of the Difference Engine and designer of the Analytical Engine - a 19th century prototype of the modern computer. Lady Lovelace’s great contributions to the history of computer science were her "Notes" explaining the theory and the potential applications of the Analytical Engine. The U.S. Department of Defense has even named a computer language "Ada" in her honor.

It has lately been fashionable to belittle Lady Lovelace’s contributions to science, to dismiss her as a mere Society woman dilettante in matters mathematical. One recent biographer even went as far as to suggest that her "Notes" on the Analytical Engine were "ghost written" by a professional mathematician (possibly by her friend Mrs. Somerville). But Dr. Toole’s meticulously researched study ¾ which is indeed, is about 50% in Ada’s own words (from her letters) ¾ sets the reader straight on that point: Ada was certainly not a dilettante. She lived and breathed mathematics and, happily, also inherited some of her father’s poetic talent and gift for language. Would that there were more technical writers like her today! Though hampered by all the usual chains binding a Victorian lady ¾ marriage, childbirth, child care, social obligations and the care of three separate households ¾ she continued to pursue her twin professions of mathematics and music until her "career" was cut short by the still undiagnosed disease that killed her at 36.

Ada, Enchantress of Numbers is valuable not only for restoring Ada’s place in the history of scientific progress; the letters excerpted in Toole’s book also contain a wealth of information about Ada’s other interests, including her very busy social life with intriguing glimpses of the balls she attended in young Queen Victoria’s time. Toole also disputes the notion that Ada’s financial troubles were due to reckless gambling; on the contrary, Ada was quite successful at handicapping race horses. Toole’s main weakness is her lack of knowledge of 19th century British Society. Like most American historians, Toole is simply clueless about the British peerage, its titles, customs, economics and moral code (one is tempted to send the Berkeley-based author a copy of Debrett’s 2000 to use for future reference). Ada’s rush to produce her three children - her Heir and Spare - before the age of 24 may have permanently ruined her health but it was common practice for young peeresses to have their children early as a safeguard for her husband’s inheritance and for their own future freedom.

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