Known as the first computer programmer, and popularized by the programming language named after her, who really was Augusta Ada, Countess of Lovelace, and what does she signify for us? Ada’s legacy, a collection of papers based on a 2013 conference, gives a number of answers from different points of view.
The centerpiece of the book is Ada’s only work to have been published in her lifetime, her translation of Luigi Menabrea’s paper on Babbage’s analytical engine, with “Notes by the Translator,” whose length is more than double that of Menabrea’s original. The notes are a fascinating combination of the technical and philosophical, explaining in detail how the engine can be programmed, and speculating on the use of the engine for symbolic computation, computer-generated music, and computational mathematics and science in general. A detailed example of the computation of the Bernoulli numbers contains two inner loops nested in an outer one; Ada explains how a fixed number of operation cards can compute Bernoulli numbers with an arbitrary index.
Ada corresponded frequently with Babbage during the preparation of the translation and notes. It has been suggested that she didn’t have the background to understand what she was writing, and that she was only parroting Babbage’s words. Reading her words, I found that hard to believe; she comes across as extremely knowledgeable and intelligent. The chapter by Thomas Misa attempts to set the record straight, presenting evidence showing that Ada did have the necessary mathematical background, and that while she may not have worked out the mathematical expressions for the Bernoulli-number algorithm by herself, she did work out in detail the program to compute them (and also found a serious mistake in Babbage’s mathematical formulation).
The last chapter, by Valerie Aurora, traces the history of how Ada was recognized through the 200 years since her birth. Initially known as the only legitimate child of the famous (and infamous) poet Lord Byron, who left her mother shortly after she was born, she later became famous for her mathematical talent and authoring the notes, and infamous for her gambling, use of laudanum, and alleged infidelity. Her name surfaced again in 1950, when Alan Turing argued against what he called “Lady Lovelace’s Objection” to machine intelligence, and became well known, at least in technical circles, with the Ada programming language in 1980.
In 1990, Ada appears as a minor character in The difference engine, the novel that popularized the steampunk movement. Steampunk has many definitions, but the relevant one is an alternate reality subgenre of science fiction in which steam-based computers appeared in the 19th century. Two chapters analyze Ada’s characterizations in several steampunk novels.
Ada always compared herself with her poet father, and her numerous letters, published after her death, discuss the relationships between science and poetry. This topic is analyzed in the chapter on “Poetical Science” by Imogen Forbes-Macphail. Another intriguing chapter discusses “Oracle,” a video song cycle for soprano voice and HD video, based on Ada’s life and written legacy. Describing a video in prose isn’t easy, but an extract from the work is available online.
Ada is an icon for women in science and technology. A discussion of Ada’s influence on the feminist movement and on the place of women in science is therefore very appropriate for this book. However, the analysis of women’s participation in an online 1970s forum (PLATO) doesn’t mention Ada at all.
The three chapters on the history of the Ada programming language give an interesting view into the development of the language and its changing fortunes; however, they are only tangentially related to Ada’s legacy, since all that the language took from Ada was her name.
The book suffers from some careless typesetting, especially in the mathematical formulas. The table at the end of Ada’s notes is incomplete; fortunately, the full table is reproduced in Misa’s chapter.
Ada’s influence on our own age is indeed more extensive than is generally known. I learned many new things from this book and was motivated to follow up on some of the references. If you are interested in science and technology and their wider ramifications on our society, you are sure to find something of interest in this book.