Ada’s Algorithm

Ada’s Algorithm
By James Essinger
Melville House Publishing. Brooklyn, NY. 2014

Ada's AlgorithmLady Ada Lovelace has a good claim to being the first Woman in Tech. Born in 1815, she was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron. She’s best known for her collaboration with Charles Babbage, inventor of the Analytical Engine, a mechanical computer which pre-dated modern electronic computers by a century. She’s generally regarded as the world’s first computer programmer. Tragically, she died at the age of 36 of uterine cancer.

Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age tells the story of Lovelace’s life and her work with Babbage. It’s also a lively defense of Lovelace by author James Essinger against some historians who think her contributions have little significance.

Note: In this review, I’m going to refer to her as either “Lovelace” or “Ada Lovelace.” Popularly, and certainly within the field of computer science, she’s known simply as “Ada.” However, I think it’s more appropriate to refer to her by her last name. I don’t refer to her colleague Charles Babbage as “Charles” and I wouldn’t refer to Isaac Newton as “Isaac”. Lovelace deserves the same treatment.

The heart Essinger’s book, and the most interesting part of it, is about Lovelace’s work with Babbage on the Analytical Engine during the early 1840’s.  Though it has never been constructed, the Analytical Engine would have been a mechanical computer made of thousands of intricate metal parts capable of performing complex calculations.

Hare’s a brief summary of the book.

In the early 1800’s, the need for a device like the Analytical Engine was acute.

Mathematics had made dramatic theoretical advances since the Renaissance; advances in calculus, algebra, and statistics, but the actual operation of mathematics, the detailed calculations required to use any of these theories, were tedious and incredibly time-consuming. An Italian mathematician named Giovanni Plana put it this way in a letter to Babbage:

“Hitherto the legislative department of our analysis has been all-powerful – the executive all feeble. Your engine seems to give us the same control over the executive which we have hitherto only possessed over the legislative department.”  Kindle loc. 1875

The most pressing need was for the production of accurate mathematical tables; tables of logarithms, exponentials, trigonometric functions, and more. These were needed for navigation, astronomy, ballistics and many other applications in a rapidly industrializing Europe. Traditionally these tables were calculated and transcribed by hand leading to errors and the unreliability of any results based on them. The British government did provided some funding to Babbage for the development of the Analytical Engine, but the amount was not enough to complete the project.

In 1840, Giovanni Plana invited Babbage to attend a meeting of Italian scientists in Turin. Later, Luigi Federico Menabrea, another mathematician who met Babbage at the Turin meeting, published a paper about the Analytical Engine in an obscure Swiss journal.

Here’s where Lovelace gets involved. Lovelace translated Menabrea’s paper. She and Babbage hoped that publication of the paper in English would give the Analytical Engine some much-needed publicity and help Babbage secure more funding from the British government. But she didn’t just translate the paper. She wrote a series of Notes that expanded on it. Substantial notes. Three times the length of the original.

One of them, Note G, is a detailed set of instructions, a procedure, for using the Analytical Engine to calculate a series of numbers known as Bernoulli Numbers. Lovelace’s procedure, her algorithm, probably wasn’t a computer program as we would understand it today, but it was still a precise set of steps for telling the Analytical Engine what calculations to perform and how. In writing this procedure Ada Lovelace became the world’s first computer programmer. It’s this algorithm that gives the book its title.

More important than her algorithm, Lovelace saw the broader potential of the Analytical Engine. She had a much more lively imagination than Babbage, who saw the engine almost exclusively as a machine for performing mathematical calculations. Lovelace imagined how it might one day come to be used for all kinds of things, including music.

“Unlike Babbage himself, Ada Lovelace saw beyond the immediate purpose of his inventions. He had little interest in such speculations and appears to have seen his inventions as mere calculators. But Ada believed that a whole new area of discovery awaited once real-world and abstract mathematics could be linked through calculations that were beyond the scope of human abilities. She had a vivid, thrilling, and disturbingly prescient visions that such a computer, for example, might handle ‘pieces of music of and degree of complexity or extent’ …”  Kindle loc. 97

Arguably this insight is her most lasting contribution to the history of computers.

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This book presents some very interesting early history, you might even call it pre-history, of computers, and I think Essinger is essentially correct in recognizing Lovelace’s contributions and insights. But overall Ada’s Algorithm left me unsatisfied. I think the main problem is that Essinger is chasing two rabbits. Maybe three. The book is primarily a biography of Ada Lovelace, but it’s also a partisan argument to secure her “a highly significant place in the pantheon of the greats of the history of computing.” And it’s an account of Charles Babbage’s attempts to develop and fund the Analytical Engine. In trying to do too much, I think the book ends up a little thin.

Perhaps it’s because Lovelace only lived to the age of 36. Maybe there’s just a lack of material to build on. Essinger relies heavily Lovelace’s published letters and those of her mother, Charles Babbage, and other people connected with them. He quotes from them extensively, so much so they begin to seem like filler.

It’s thin in a couple of other areas too.

If you’re hoping for any technical details about the Analytical Engine, you’ll be disappointed. There’s very little beyond a general description and some tantalizing hints, like the separation of processing (the mill) from data (the store), and the use of punch cards, inspired by the Jacquard loom, for holding instructions and data values.

And despite the book’s title, there are no details at all, nothing, a big British naught, about the algorithm itself. I have to wonder, did Essinger not understand it? Or did he not think anyone would be interested? It’s the most important technical achievement of Lovelace’s brief career and yet he doesn’t even give an outline. Bizarre!

(Okay, okay, I know I’m guilty of asking the author for more details on more topics and I’m also saying the book is trying to do too much. But those are things I really am curious about!)

Lastly there’s the issue of Lovelace as a woman working in a scientific field. To his credit, Essinger does a good job covering the difficulties Lovelace had to confront. In the 19th Century, mathematics and science were not just male-dominated. They were virtually male-only. Did Lovelace face discrimination and other obstacles because she was female? Clearly she did. Some of her tutors clearly thought it was inappropriate for a woman to have such an appetite for scientific learning. On her translation of Menabrea’s paper she identified herself only by her initials, AAL, but once it was published her identity became known pretty quickly. According to Essinger, because she was a woman the paper was not received as well as it should have been and did not bring the hoped-for credibility boost to Babbage’s project.  And while Babbage thought very highly of Lovelace, he declined her offer to be his business partner, possibly because she was a woman, or possibly because he was a grumpy, somewhat paranoid control freak.

On the other hand, Lady Ada Lovelace was born to wealth and privilege. She had the advantages of her class. She was well-educated in mathematics and science, ironically at the insistence of her mother who steered the young Lovelace away from the arts in hopes she would not follow in the scandalous footsteps of her famous father, Lord Byron. She was introduced to Babbage and despite social conventions developed and maintained a deep, possibly romantic, friendship with him.

There’s a paradox here, or at least some tension, between the privileges of Lovelace’s class and the restrictions placed on her gender. Essinger doesn’t explore the dichotomy at all.

These gaps make Ada’s Algorithm somewhat frustrating.  But the real tragedy is that her work was cut short. Who knows what she might have accomplished with her intellect, imagination and passion over a longer life.

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