Two Ada books

At the end of last year and beginning of this year I finally read Sydney Padua’s very entertaining graphic novel The thrilling adventures of Lovelace and Babbage about (parallel universe) Ada Lovelace, and then tracked down what seems like the only book on the Lovelace’s correspondence, Ada, Enchantress of Numbers, by Betty Toole.

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The title of the latter is a slight misquote of something Babbage wrote of Lovelace, describing her as “Enchantress of Number”. I have skimmed through the Lovelace–de Morgan correspondence before, painstakingly and faithfully LaTeXed by Christopher Hollings, and was hoping for something in the latter book of a similar nature. Unfortunately all mathematical content is excised. And even some minor typographical changes are pervasive, such as rendering abbreviations like Weddy (for Wednesday) as Weddy. More unfortunate in Toole’s book is the forced analogies that the author tries to make between the conceptual ideas of Ada the person with the design and structure of the Ada programming language. While undoubtedly a thorough treatment of Lovelace’s correspondence would require familiarity with 19th century cultural norms and social history, any examination of precedents of 20th century computer science nascent in the letters to Babbage also requires more than passing knowledge of computer science. Such enthusiastic sections can be safely skipped. But overreaching claims aside, one can see that Lovelace thought deeply about the mathematics she was learning, and how it might be applied to other situations, some rather novel. In the following letter of 1840 she is thinking about how one might mathematically analyse a peg solitare game.

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I feel Toole’s book, which consists of chapters of (edited) letters of Lovelace together with explanatory text, lacks somewhat in that one almost always only gets the letters in one direction (there are a few letters from Babbage or de Morgan, for instance, to Lovelace)—unlike the digital Lovelace–de Morgan correspondence. However, at the least, one gets to see the development of Lovelace’s personality from childhood to married life and being a parent while trying to study mathematics, and on to her decline and slow death from cancer. The letters paint a fascinating picture of Victorian Society, whereby mesmerism is seen as a form of medical treatment (though not without some scepticism on Ada’s part against her mother’s urging), and electromagnetism is in the process of being discovered, and mathematics is just about to go through somewhat of a revolution (in the 1830s-40s rigorous analysis was just being established, as was logic as a mathematical discipline). Lovelace’s creativity is surprising, but I would not be surprised if there were periods of real mania, either drug-induced or due to mental health issues. This BBC article notes “At times, Ada certainly had an exaggerated sense of her own destiny. Many of her letters are very long and self-obsessed and often a bit over the top.” Metaphor is used freely and richly, though sometimes it is not clear whether it is fanciful and playful writing or being taken seriously; Toole at times says that Lovelace really did mean the more ‘spacey’ of the descriptions, though it really is not clear. As Stephen Wolfram describes it, some of the letters between Lovelace and Babbage during the drafting and editing of the translation of Meabrea’s article and Lovelace’s attached Translator’s Note read like thick and fast email conversation around modern research (there were of course at the time multiple post deliveries per day, plus servants dispatched with additional letters).

It is this type of modern metaphor that Sydney Padua, freed from the constraints of needing to be historically accurate, plays with freely. The only time the cyberpunk/alternate history asthetic with its modern metaphors feels out of place is in the one ‘real history’ chapter (the opener), where Lovelace goes to tweet about a Babbage party she is at, momentarily mistaking her fan for a smartphone. But once the alternate history starts, the jodhpurs-wearing, pipe-smoking Lovelace is a wonderful character. Padua infuses the writing with a Victorian feel by lifting phrases and dialogue from Lovelace’s and Babbage’s letters, giving pointers when this is done and where they came from, in footnotes. Oh yes, the footnotes. There are footnotes on footnotes. There are pages of endnotes on each chapter, giving real-world historical insight into the fictionalised version. Other historical characters get a look in, such as the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (here seen in the two bottom left panels), or Queen Victoria, whose offer of a variety of knighthood Babbage refused (in real life as in the comic) as it did not come with the honorific ‘sir’.

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There is also a lot of historical material in the appendices, including contemporary  articles that Padua sourced by trawling through Google scans of 19th century newspapers. Despite the fictional treatment of the historical characters, one can use Padua’s book at a stepping-off point to find real sources, which she carefully tracked down to inform her fiction, to read more about these larger-than-life personalities.

If only someone would edit a Lovelace–Babbage correspondence and included the mathematics and technical details, and gave informed commentary on the context coming from the history of mathematics at the time….

4 thoughts on “Two Ada books

    1. Thanks! That looks like a good article. The abstract:

      “Ada Lovelace is widely regarded as an early pioneer of computer science, due to an 1843 paper about Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, which, had it been built, would have been a general-purpose computer. However, there has been considerable disagreement among scholars as to her mathematical proficiency. This paper presents the first account by historians of mathematics of the correspondence between Lovelace and the mathematician Augustus De Morgan from 1840–41. Detailed contextual analysis allows us to present a corrected ordering of the archive material, countering previous claims of Lovelace’s mathematical inadequacies, and presenting a more nuanced assessment of her abilities.”

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