James Essinger - A Female Genius: How Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s Daughter, Started The Computer Age (3 stars)

James Essinger - A Female Genius: How Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s Daughter, Started The Computer Age

A useful if slightly stiff account of the Victorian Lovelace's short career

(Gibson Square)

In this slender biography about mathematical prodigy Ada Lovelace, James Essinger argues she was the only person to realise the true potential of the first calculating machine, which could have ushered in the computer age in the 1840s.

Famous from babyhood, thanks to her mad, bad and dangerous to know poet father, with whom she had no contact, Ada was raised by her mother on strictly rational and mathematical principles. Yet the teenage Lovelace obsessed over fanciful schemes to construct a steam-powered flying horse. Later, after being introduced to inventor Charles Babbage, she wrote a detailed analysis of his Analytical Machine which imagined possibilities he’d never considered – but which we now take for granted.

Essinger’s prose is a little stiff and he tends to over-explain: most people know that the Victorian women were expected to marry, not work, for instance. And he takes some odd leaps, suggesting that the aristocracy regarded incest as 'reasonably acceptable' and glossing over the inconvenient fact that modern computers are not direct descendants of Babbage’s at all.

But this is a useful account of Ada Lovelace’s short career which brings her vivid imagination and passion for mathematics to life.

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