Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine

I couldn’t leave off my month of older picture books– or, to be more precise, thinking about picture books as they would work for older children– without going in for some of my personal passions: girls in science.  Well, let’s be more precise.  Today’s blog is all about precision.  I’m not just for girls in science– I’m a bleeding heart Canadian liberal and am for girls in whatever the hell suits them best, honestly.  I’m for liberating the humanities from the current view of them as fluffy leftovers, and I’m for seeing the hard honest edges around science: what works and what doesn’t and why we should be suspicious of the current Big Data craze.  There’s a lot to talk about in the academic world these days, and that’s why I’m for bringing girls into the conversation.

Just as Ada Lovelace was.  And this book, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine (credit where it’s due: for once Amazon brought up a book I wanted, so I’m rewarding it with a link) by Laurie Wallmark and illustrated by April Chu, cleverly and succinctly shows just how Ada became such a mathematician, and, frankly, why she was so very awesome.  If you do not think that Ada Lovelace is awesome already, then you will after reading this book.

Ada Byron Lovelace.jpg

OK, OK, it has been brought to my attention by my brain that my gushing calls for explanation: I am a total fangirl for Ada Lovelace.  I adore her.  I feel sorry for everything she went through in her life, I feel proud for all she accomplished, I am a total, complete fangirl.  As for what she went through in her life?  It can maybe most succinctly be represented by this little comic from Kate Beaton (remember her?) about young Ada Lovelace:

Kate Beaton Young Ada Lovelace

That’s it in a nutshell.  It’s explained somewhat more delicately in Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine, but Lord and Lady Byron, well, why they ever got married is beyond me, but they did, and had young Ada.  It wasn’t long before Lady Byron left with Ada, and, wanting to combat any tendency towards poetry in her daughter, she instilled math assiduously.  Lady Byron herself had an affinity for math, and young Ada caught onto it quickly and eagerly.  Despite not seeing either of her parents very often– her mother was not particularly maternal and Ada was kept far away from Lord Byron– and probably being very lonely, she enjoyed her math lessons and became quite remarkably skilled.

The defining moment for her, as is drawn out beautifully in this book, is her meeting with Charles Babbage and the moment he shows her his Difference Engine, a new and powerful mechanical calculator.


Damn, I’m sorry.  It’s awfully hard to get good pictures of glossy book pages with my limited setup here.  Hey– do yourselves a favour and get your own copy of the book so you can see better!  Anyway, what you want to see here is the following:

a) Charles Babbage is talking to Ada as to a colleague.  To quote the text from the previous page: “He treated her like the fellow mathematician and inventor she already was.”

b) Look at Ada’s stance: she’s completely unselfconscious and poised.  She is unembarrassed, talking ably and intelligently to a colleague.  She sees no need to apologize or explain: she’s simply good at what she does and is doing it.  (Any jealousy you detect in my typing must be in your own imagination.)

c) The focus of the page is the machine, the work they mutually understand and enjoy and are striving to expand to the level of a true “thinking machine” (a programmable computer).

Ada goes off with her head full of ideas and continues to correspond and work with Charles Babbage.  She develops an algorithm to test his thinking machine when it will be built– which, alas, it never is.  But that algorithm is seen as the world’s first computer program.

This is why I love Ada so much, can’t you see?  She wasn’t just a brilliant mathematician.  She wasn’t meek.  She wasn’t particularly pushy, either.  She just was.  She did her thing.  She shared it, unapologetically, unashamedly, unselfconsciously… she worked and thought and worked and did her math things brilliantly.  She was herself, Ada Byron Lovelace, to the fullest.

That’s the Ada who comes across so beautifully in Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine, and that’s why I love this book so much.  Laurie Wallmark tells her story simply, elegantly, and cleanly: I think Ada would have appreciated the precision with which it’s pared down and tidy and runs in smooth lines.  April Chu’s illustrations highlight the key moments, such as Ada’s first encounter with the Difference Engine shown above, and they do so with beauty and elegance, like cleanly written code.  Together they make a stellar team for bringing to life such an important story.

“Important?” you ask.  “Interesting, certainly… but important?”

Yes, important.  I stand by that word.  Remember we’re talking about schoolchildren here.  Remember that I said I envied Ada’s stance on that page– poised and vigorous in presenting her views, not at all worried about putting herself forward.

I’m going to start a new paragraph for emphasis here.  Quite as important as finding your field and pursuing it is the ability to pursue it with confidence and self-reliance.  Being able to do the work is one thing, absolutely.  Being strong enough to share your ideas with your fellows as an equal and being able to speak confidently and clearly is also important.  And that’s the image which comes through strongly in this book, and that is why I strongly recommend this book to everyone, male and female, from kindergarten up.  Without in any fashion being preachy, it teaches you to be strong, be confident, be smart, be competent.  Ada Lovelace was, and you can be, too.

Folks?  I dare you to read this book and not love Ada as much as I do.  Go on, try it.  Here’s the link again: Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine

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