Romance, Reason and Byron’s Daughter

Ada Lovelace: Bride of Science by Benjamin Woolley

Pan Books, imprint of Pan Macmillan, 2015

It was as though she was the product of a cross-breeding experiment, an attempt to combine Sentiment and Intellect to produce a new type of human just as agricultural scientists were trying to combine fast growth and fertility to produce a new type of pig. She now needed to know how successful the experiment had been, whether it had resulted in a viable new breed, or a monster.

Ada Lovelace: Bride of Science book cover

Ada Lovelace, daughter of celebrated poet Lord Byron, was born in 1815 and died aged just 36. This biography deftly portrays the ill-fated marriage of her parents, and her own life.

Ada never knew her father as the marriage between her somewhat cold, calculating mother, Annabella, and intense, passionate, Romantic father disintegrated rapidly. Ada was then used as a pawn by her mother, who seems never to truly have cared for her daughter except in terms of how she could be of benefit to her own ends. Annabella needed to justify leaving her husband and used his potential bad influence upon their daughter as a reason. She then set about ‘to drain my blood from out thy vain’ as Byron put it, by ensuring Ada had rigorous scientific education.

Ada embraced the scientific view of the world, even trying to build wings at age 13, but the battle between art and science was one that raged inside her for her whole life and which she struggled with immensely at times. In addition, there were battles with her domineering mother, a family scandal, and the massive societal shifts that were occurring at the time in the Western world. The railway – and hence standardising of time, – the telegraph, electricity and electromagnetism all had a profound impact on the world and occurred during Ada’s lifetime. In addition, the author provides insights into phrenology and mesmerism, which were in fashion at the time.

The Difference Engine and in particular the Analytical Engine proposed by Charles Babbage were basically the essence of what we now know as computers. It was just 100 years before the world was ready for them. Although she admitted to sometimes struggling with the mathematics, Ada understood the workings of such a machine extraordinarily well, and created a table showing how the Analytical Engine could calculate the Bernoulli numbers. This is often credited with being the first computer program. Her notes on Babbage’s Engine were published, an achievement of which she was enormously proud. And quite rightly. This was an era when women rarely wrote on scientific subjects, and it was even rarer for those writings to be for  expert, scientific, male readers.

I found this book to be very well written, and balanced in its portrayal of a fascinating woman, who did not let herself be defined by men. She was by no means perfect, but that is what makes her even more of a hero to me. The historical insights into the seismic technological shifts occurring at the time were also expertly rendered. A highly recommended read.

Incidentally, while in Waterstones this week, I happened upon a graphic novel: Lovelace and Babbage which looks great. Plus, I found out today that Birlinn have a book about Mary Somerville, a mentor of Ada’s and a fellow society-defying scientist. This needs to go on the list!

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