Ada: The Enchantress of Numbers
by Betty Alexandra Toole, Ed.D.
Misinformation and Information
Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace, has been characterized by some as a mere "pupil of Charles Babbage" and by others as the "Statue of Liberty of computing." Have you seen the movie Good Will Hunting? If so, take a look at Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace-- she also "just knew."
To enable readers to base their own conclusions on the evidence, I
have structured Ada, The Enchantress of Numbers: Prophet of the
Computer Age to fit the internet age: one-half biography, one-half
email of the 19th century. Appendix II contains the latest
information about the controversy over whether Ada should be
acknowledged as the first programmer and prophet of the computer age.
The answers to the following questions are found in Ada, The
Enchantress of Numbers: Prophet of the Computer Age.
Pathway to the 21st century: Questions for the reader1. Ada Byron's story is filled with facts and fantasy. If there had been a People magazine in the 19th century, Ada, like her father, Lord Byron, would have been on the cover. She has suffered the fate of many celebrities. Why? Who, initially, most likely skewed our perception of both Byron and Ada? What was Ada's relationship to drugs, gambling, and family? How can you separate fact from fantasy?
2. When this book went to press, I decided to check out the rumors that are responsible for creating a new myth-- that Ada was an incompetent mathematician and did not write the Notes. Some scholars said there were previous programs to the table of instructions for the Bernoulli numbers, now considered the first program. At the Science Museum in London I found previous unpublished programs, but comparing them to Ada's table of instructions for Bernoulli numbers is like comparing arithmetic to calculus. What are Bernoulli numbers? Who was the most reliable judge of Ada's ability to write the program and her competence as a mathematician? What did he say? Who knew best whether Ada wrote the Notes in 1843? What was his evaluation of her contribution?
3. Did Ada learn about Bernoulli numbers while she was studying with her teacher Augustus DeMorgan? Did she suggest the Bernoulli numbers as the appropriate program to differentiate the Analytical Engine from all previous calculating machines? Did Ada mention working on the table of instructions for the Bernoulli numbers? Did Ada complete the table? What evidence is there in this book to back that up?
4. Some scholars say that Ada worked under Babbage's close supervision. In 13 years of research, I have not found one letter from Babbage that instructs Ada. Babbage wrote decades later that he completed the table since Ada was ill, but that Ada had detected a mistake. What evidence is there in this book that Ada kept a careful watch on the material she sent to Babbage for review, which he in turn sent back? She did made a mistake. Did Charles Babbage catch it? Who caught the mistake, and how did he change it? Who was watching whom? Can you estimate how long it took Ada to write the Notes?
5. I received email recently asking why I have elevated Ada to the same level of importance as Charles Babbage, whose conception contained the basic components of the modern computer. The concept was truly revolutionary, but if you do not know how to talk to a machine and do not know its limits and potential, what do you have? Are programmers as important as the people who design machines?
6. The leitmotif of this book is the struggle between poetry and science-- what Ada termed "Poetical Science." Ada did not receive a traditional education. What skills did she develop as a child and teenager that later turned out to be very useful? Is it possible today to teach our children the same skills?
7. Was Babbage a speculator? Who was responsible for writing the prophetic comments about the computer age? What evidence backs that up? What did Ada see as the future of Babbage's Analytical Engine in 1843? How is designing web sites today similar to what Ada predicted in 1843? How do you think Ada could be such a successful prophet? How did Ada think geometry could be expanded? How did Ada's illnesses inspire her to predict what might be needed to understand the nervous system?
8. Some of the many original works in which Ada is a character are the virtual reality movie Conceiving Ada, the novel The Difference Engine, and the chapter "Ada" in Arthur C. Clarke's The Ghost from the Grand Banks. Ada is most likely the inspiration for the character Thomasina in Thomas Stoppard's play Arcadia. How can we use the story of Ada's life, both fantasy and facts, as a pathway to the 21st century?
9. Generate your own questions, for the questions are the most fascinating part of this story-- they are Ada's "what ifs."
10. The birth of the computer revolution is an engaging story, but instead of asking what Babbage or Ada did, we leave our isms behind and change the focus. How did their special skills work together? For me, that is the far more fascinating and appropriate question for the 21st century, and who knows where that might lead?