Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science: A Lovely Children’s Book About the World’s First Computer Programmer
By Maria Popova
“It seizes points in common, between subjects having no very apparent connexion,” Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace — better known as Ada Lovelace (December 10, 1815–November 27, 1852) — wrote of the human imagination as she contemplated its two core faculties. Lovelace was a woman of immense and indomitable genius, whose gift for such unexpected connections paved the way for modern computing. She defied her era’s limiting norms, defied her mother’s constraints on her imagination, defied the way books were written and thoughts were thought, and collaborated with Charles Babbage on the first computer to become the world’s first computer programmer.
Now comes Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science (public library) by writer Diane Stanley and illustrator Jessie Hartland (who also illustrated that wonderful children’s book about Julia Child) — a fine addition to the loveliest children’s books about cultural heroes.
Long, long ago, on a cold winter day, a lonely little girl walked from room to room in a big, old, dark country house. Her name was Ada Byron and she was looking for something to do.
The story, written with laconic elegance and a touch of quiet wryness, follows young Ada from her unusual childhood, cleaved by her parents’ opposite natures, to her design of a flying apparatus at the age of twelve, inspired by the anatomy of birds, to her fateful meeting and collaboration with Charles Babbage on the Analytical Engine, which catalyzed modern computing.
Ada’s parents were as different as chalk and cheese. Her father, the famous poet Lord Byron, was a worldwide celebrity, the rock star of his time.
Her mother, Lady Byron, was interested in math and science. She was rational, respectable, and strict. The marriage only lasted a year.
One of the most interesting and timeless aspects of Lovelace’s story is that her foray into programming bore the mark of what Albert Einstein called “combinatory play,” which he considered the key characteristic of how his mind worked and which bespeaks the combinatorial nature of all creativity — the ability to connect the seemingly unconnected by cross-pollinating questions and insights across disparate domains to create something entirely novel. Like Johannes Gutenberg, who employed such combinatorial ingenuity by fusing elements of winemaking, metallurgy, and labor economics in inventing the printing press, Lovelace was fascinated by a mechanical loom — a pinnacle of technology, which she saw with her mother during a visit to the tantalizing new factories of the era. (Her time was, after all, the most revolutionary part of the Industrial Revolution.)
But how did the loom know which pattern to weave? That was the amazing part. The design was translated into a pattern of holes punched into heavy paper cards. Long chains of these cards were fed into the loom, giving it instructions. To change the design, you only had to change the cards. Ada was amazed. It was a brilliant idea — and not just for weaving cloth.
Not long after the seed of this fertile question was planted, seventeen-year-old Ada Byron moved to London. But she immediately felt awkwardly ill-fitted for the social charade of high society. When she was introduced to the brilliant and eccentric Charles Babbage, who had just built his impressive Difference Engine, she finally felt that she had found her tribe.
So began their fruitful and paradigm-shifting collaboration, in the course of which Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program while translating an Italian military engineer’s paper. Among the sixty-five pages of footnotes she wrote — threefold the length of the paper itself — was one containing the very first algorithm.
Like trailblazing biologist and writer Rachel Carson, who signed her early work “R.L. Carson” out of fear that she wouldn’t be taken seriously if people realized the author catalyzing the environmental movement was a woman, Lovelace signed her paper with her initials: A.A.L.
A portion of the story that many either omit or never realized in the first place is that Ada Byron — who, at her mother’s insistence, married the Earl of Lovelace in the midst of this intellectual tumult and became Ada Lovelace — accomplished her landmark triumph of symbolic logic with two toddlers and a baby in the crib at home.
And so, the little girl who had once dreamt of flying grew up to pioneer a logical language that would come to power jet planes and spaceflight and the myriad everyday extensions of our cognitive abilities that we’ve come to take for granted, including the very act of my typing on this keyboard and your reading on this screen.
Complement the marvelous Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science with the illustrated story of how Lovelace and Babbage invented the world’s first computer and Lovelace herself on how the imagination works, then revisit other wonderful picture-books introducing young minds to other worthy role models in science and the arts: Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Jane Goodall, Louise Bourgeois, E.E. Cummings, Paul Gauguin, Frida Kahlo, Henri Matisse, Albert Einstein, John Lewis, Paul Erdős, and Nellie Bly.
Published April 5, 2017