In celebration of our 10th Ada Lovelace Day we are giving away a copy of Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist, a new account of Ada Lovelace’s mathematical education and achievements by Lovelace scholar and mathematician Ursula Martin, along with co-authors and fellow mathematicians Christopher Hollings and Adrian Rice.
Whilst there are many biographies extant of Ada, Countess of Lovelace, none explore her interest in maths in the same level of detail as Hollings, Martin and Rice, nor do they provide such a fascinating and compelling glimpse into her childhood, education and personality. The authors have been working for some time on digitising and analysing previously unpublished letters to and from Lovelace, and this book is just one result of that project.
Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist is a beautifully written and extraordinarily approachable book. Liberally illustrated with scans of her letters, portraits, and illustrations, we get an insight into Lovelace’s own fascinations and interests, as well as how her education was structured or, indeed, not.
As a girl, Ada was not permitted a formal education, instead being taught by governesses and, later, her mother, Lady Anne Isabella (Annabella) Byron. Whilst this meant that Ada could, to some extent, focus on what interested her the most, the lack of a formal syllabus meant that at times she had to go back to fill in the blanks before she could progress.
Much of Lovelace’s mathematical education came through exchanging letters and sometimes meeting with mathematicians, including Dr William Frend, Mary Somerville and, crucially, eminent mathematician and logician, Augustus de Morgan. By 1841, when she was 25, Lovelace was revisiting algebra so that she could more easily tackle calculus. But she wasn’t content to just do the exercises and move on to the next chapter, she wanted to fully understand the underlying principles and would work on a problem until she had really cracked it.
It is through her letters and her mathematical education that Hollings, Martin and Rice paint a vivid picture of the kind of person Lovelace was, illustrating her determination, tenacity and intelligence. Of course, the culmination of her studies was the writing of Note G, a ‘footnote’ to Lovelace’s translation from French to English of Luigi Menabrea’s paper about Charles Babbage’s computing machine, The Analytical Engine. Note G very famously contains instructions for the calculation of Bernoulli Numbers, widely considered to be the first computer program. For many, though, Lovelace’s crowning achievement was not the program, but her vision of what The Analytical Engine could do, her realisation that if it could manipulate numbers then it could manipulate symbols and might thus be capable of creating music or graphics.
“Lovelace’s paper is an extraordinary accomplishment, probably understood and recognized by very few in its time, yet still perfectly understandable nearly two centuries later. It covers algebra, mathematics, logic and even philosophy: a presentation of the unchanging principles of the general-purpose computer; a comprehensive and detailed account of the so-called ‘first computer program’; and an overview of the practical engineering of data, cards, memory and programming.”
Hollings, Martin and Rice’s accomplishment is to take a maths-heavy subject and make it not just comprehensible to the non-mathematician, but thoroughly enjoyable. Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist’s only flaw is its brevity: It is so well-written that I could easily have read a version double the length.
If you would like to win a copy of Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist, please share a link to this blog post on social media, then leave a comment below with a link to your social media post. Please make sure that the email in your comment profile works, so that we can get hold of you! The competition will close at midnight BST on 8 October, and we will announce the winning prize on Ada Lovelace Day, 9 October. Only open to residents of the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland.
And talking of Ada Lovelace Day, don’t forget to get your tickets to our science cabaret event, Ada Lovelace Day Live at The IET in London, and check our worldwide map to see if there’s an indie event on near you!