Review: Ada's Algorithm by James Essinger's Algorithm: How Lord Byron's Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age by James Essinger (Melville House, 272 pages)

Because I have a husband who works with computers every day and knows them inside and out, I've naturally become more interested in the development of technology and computer history over the past decade plus. In fact, sometimes I know more about the history of computers than he does, but that's only because I try to get my hands on lots of history-of-science-y books cause that's how I roll.

So when I heard about Ada's Algorithm, I couldn't wait until it was released, but then life got in the way, so I only just finished reading it. In this wide-ranging but relatively slim biography/history of Ada Lovelace (daughter of George Gordon, Lord Byron), her friends, and early-19th-century England, Essinger details how this brilliant and inspired woman pursued her mathematics education and ultimately understood more about Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine than Babbage himself.

Essinger includes chapter-length biographies of several of Lovelace's family members and friends, including her mother, Lord Byron (clearly), Charles Babbage, and others. On the one hand, this allows us to understand more fully the culture and expectations into which Lovelace was born and expected to flourish. On the other hand, I wondered at times if some of these biographical sketches were included because we don't know a whole lot about Lovelace herself. Much of what we do know, we know because of her letters. Now, Essinger does reference a recent biography of Lovelace, so perhaps a full-scale biography was not his intention.

If that's the case, the point, then, of this book, is to put to rest any lingering doubts about Lovelace's contribution to the development of computers and computer programs. Yes? I'd lean toward this reading particularly because, in the second half of the book, Essinger quotes extensively from Lovelace and Babbage's correspondence about the Analytical Engine, focusing particularly on a specific note in her translation of a paper written about Babbage's machine. She does indeed see far beyond the more practical, everyday uses of a machine that can compute complex mathematical problems, and her ideas seem barely contained by her excited words.

And yet, I kept thinking "the author doth protest too much," which might be unfair, given that I haven't been involved in the (seemingly) heated arguments about whether or not Lovelace was actually as involved with Babbage's work as many believe she was. I'm convinced by Essinger, since he provides ample evidence, but I don't need to be reminded, like, 10 times, that Lovelace was a brilliant, genius, super-smart, far-seeing mathematician/philosopher.

Despite this, if you're interested in the history of computers, female mathematicians, early-19th-century England, or even Byron and Dickens, check out Ada's Algorithm.

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