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The Calculus of Passion

Thomas Trainor

The Bride of Science: Romance, Reason, and Byron's Daughter. Benjamin Woolley. xii + 416 pp. McGraw-Hill, first published in the United Kingdom by Macmillan in 1999. $27.95.

Augusta Ada Byron King, Lady Lovelace—born December 10, 1815, to the sound of seltzer bottles being smashed with a poker by her father, Lord Byron—has been hyped as first computer hacker, ersatz mathematical prodigy, protofeminist and drug addict. In contrast, in The Bride of Science Benjamin Woolley describes a multidimensional woman whose suffering, creativity, frustration and triumph intrigue us.

The first third of this book describes Ada's bizarre family background, which is the key to her complex story. Her parents' character differences constituted a vast Apollonian–Dionysian rift: George Gordon Byron, who led a sensationally romantic life as a "Regency libertine," personified the existential defiance of the fire-giving Titan Prometheus, whereas Anne Isabella ("Annabella") Milbanke was in the vanguard of Victorian priggishness, hypocrisy and entitlement. She suppressed her own considerable passions behind a facade of intellectualism, morality and amateur mathematics, and Byron dubbed her "the Princess of Parallelograms."

Ada Byron, shown here at about age 5 . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Soon after Ada's birth, Annabella fled Byron, charging that his profligate lifestyle bordered on the insane. Byron departed England a few months later, never to return alive. Attempting to purge Ada of her father's "deviant" character, Annabella maintained a stultifying but emotionally detached involvement in every aspect of Ada's life. She instituted a kind of martial law (enforced during her frequent absences by like-minded spinster friends), which would continue until Ada's death.

Woolley gives careful attention to Ada's adult milieu. Like her father, she had close relationships with some of the best scientific minds of the age: Charles Wheatstone, Mary Somerville, Charles Lyell, Charles Babbage, Augustus De Morgan and Michael Faraday. Ada was deeply concerned to make a more rational use of the "genius" she believed she had inherited from Byron. However, she faced daunting limitations to her creativity at a time when aristocratic women lived off a "pin money" allowance at the sufferance of their husbands.

Ada's marriage in 1836 to William King, Eighth Baron of Ockham, First Earl of Lovelace, produced three children, the first of whom was named Byron. William, like Annabella, was emotionally detached from Ada and spent much time away from her on business matters. It is ironic that, although Ada saw marriage as a means to escape Annabella's control, William developed a close association with her mother, which only added to Ada's sense of confinement.

Mary Somerville was Ada's role model and confidante for several critical years. Arguably the greatest woman scientist of the age (the London Post called her "The Queen of 19th-Century Science"), Somerville was the translator of Pierre-Simon Laplace's stupefying five-volume Traité de mécanique céleste. It was she who introduced Ada in 1834 to Charles Babbage, who held Newton's chair (Lucasian Professor of Mathematics) at the University of Cambridge.

Babbage was the inventor of a "thinking machine" he called the Difference Engine (which had attracted Ada's interest two years earlier). Inspired by Gaspard Riche de Prony's use of out-of-work hairdressers as human calculator elements to produce numerical tables for the newly established French metric system, Babbage had conceived the idea of "turning de Prony's coiffeurs into cogs" to make a complex computing machine.

The follow-up Analytical Engine, designed by Babbage between 1834 and 1842 (while Ada was closely associated with him), would be able to follow a list of instructions including conditional branching, thereby greatly expanding the complexity of its calculations. Its architecture had the requisite components of a modern computer: central processing unit, memory, program and input/output devices. Programming was to be accomplished with punched cards already developed for the Jacquard loom.

In 1841 Babbage was invited to describe his Analytical Engine at Turin, where notes were made and later published by a Captain Luigi Menabrea (who later became prime minister of a newly unified Italy). Charles Wheatstone noticed a French version of this manuscript early in 1843 and suggested to Ada that she translate it into English for publication. Babbage further suggested that she add a gloss of her own on the details of the Analytical Engine; this turned out to be a set of several "Notes" much longer than the original Menabrea article. This "memoir," as the translation with notes came to be known, contains what is arguably the first instance of a computer program and several powerful generalizations on the symbolic functioning and future potential of computers. It was "a work that would become the definitive (indeed, the only) detailed account of [the Analytical Engine's] design and applications."

Debate continues over Ada's real contribution to the Analytical Engine and its subsequent popularization, and to modern computer design and programming. Woolley leaves the question open, providing instead a wealth of historical detail to inform our opinion.

Ada cautions in Note G of the memoir that "there is frequently a tendency, first, to overrate what we find to be already interesting or remarkable; and, secondly, by a sort of natural reaction, to undervalue the true state of the case, when we do discover that our notions have surpassed those that were really tenable." These words could be applied with some irony to Ada's own situation. Babbage's view of Ada's contribution is unambiguous. He paid her the highest compliment for Note A by refusing to return the draft to her "because he did not want her to alter it." In his opinion, Ada demonstrated in Note A "a depth of understanding that even he had not anticipated." She had seen beyond his vision.

The memoir ("this first child of mine," she called it) would be the intellectual triumph of Ada's life. After its publication, she described herself as "more than ever now the bride of science," and she wanted to conduct a major research program on the electrochemical aspects of neural functioning—to develop what she called a "calculus of the nervous system." However, her efforts to do so were unfruitful.

During Ada's final struggles with cancer in 1852, Annabella turned away friends and family from her sickroom, controlling the circumstances of Ada's life to its end. Ada chose to be buried beside her father, with a biblical epitaph: "You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man; he does not resist you" (James 5:6). Ada and Byron had both suffered metaphorically the fate of Prometheus, to be bound by chains while preyed upon by vultures. In Woolley's perceptive rendering, the tragedy is that father and daughter, sharing a similar genius with tragic consequences, were unable to console each other in life.—Thomas A. Trainor, Physics and Astronomy, University of Washington, Seattle

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