Ada Lovelace: the Making of a Computer Scientist

Post by Ursula Martin

The remarkable story of Ada Lovelace, often considered the world’s first computer programmer, is told in a new book, ‘Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist’,  co-written by Oxford Mathematicians Christopher Hollings and Ursula Martin together with colleague Adrian Rice from Randolph-Macon College.

The book is  a companion to the Computer History Museum’s current exhibition  Thinking Big: Ada, Countess of Lovelace, and both  draw  on the Lovelace papers held at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, featuring  reproductions from this  exceptional collection that highlight Lovelace’s mathematical prowess as well as her creativity and imagination. They include  rare historical documents from Lovelace’s childhood, and later correspondence with  her distinguished tutors, including Augustus De Morgan, Charles Babbage, and other well-known Victorian thinkers.

Detail, Lovelace’s mathematical papers, Bodleian Library

One treasure in this lavishly illustrated book is a sheet of apparent doodles of dots and lines, which  lay unrecognised in the Bodleian Library until Ursula Martin spotted what it was – a conversation between Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage about finding patterns in networks. Their network is a pattern of islands and bridges, and the puzzle is to find a route that crosses each bridge exactly once and returns to the starting point. Remarkably, they figure out the conditions for such a route to exist, for any possible network. So the document is a  very early forerunner of the sophisticated algorithmics used today in every kind of network routing or analysis problem, from friendship networks to airline schedules.

Ada, Countess of Lovelace (1815–1852) was the daughter of poet Lord Byron and his highly educated wife, Anne Isabella. Active in Victorian London’s social and scientific elite alongside Mary Somerville, Michael Faraday and Charles Dickens, Ada Lovelace became fascinated by the computing machines devised by Charles Babbage.  The table of mathematical formulae sometimes called the ‘first programme’ occurs in her 1843 paper about his most ambitious invention, his unbuilt ‘Analytical Engine.’

Ada Lovelace had no access to formal school or university education, but studied science and mathematics from a young age. This book uses previously unpublished archival material to explore her precocious childhood: her ideas for a steam-powered flying horse, pages from her mathematical notebooks, and penetrating questions about the science of rainbows. A remarkable correspondence course with the eminent mathematician Augustus De Morgan shows her developing into a gifted, perceptive and knowledgeable mathematician, not afraid to challenge her teacher over controversial ideas.

Calculation of Bernoulli numbers, Ada Lovelace, 1843

Her 1843 paper, a translation from the French of Menabrea with lengthy appendices by Lovelace,  discusses the Analytical Engine in abstract mathematical terms, still of relevance today,  which contrast with the engineering details of Babbage’s own copious notes. She also reflected on broader questions such as whether the machine might think, or compose music. The paper remains the most complete high-level explanation we have of the unbuilt the  Analytical Engine.

“Lovelace’s far sighted remarks about whether the machine might think, or compose music, still resonate today,” said Professor Martin. “This book shows how Ada Lovelace, with astonishing prescience, learned the maths she needed to understand the principles behind modern computing.”  The book has met with acclaim, with presentations on the BBC, events at major literary festivals, and reviewers admiring its lucid presentation and elegant reproduction of key documents. On 25  July 2018 the life and legacy of Ada Lovelace was honoured in a resolution of the US Senate .

Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist by Christopher Hollings, Ursula Martin and Adrian Rice is distributed in the USA by University of Chicago Press ; published by Bodleian Library Publishing , in partnership with the Clay Mathematics Institute .