If you had to guess what would happen to Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate child of the infamous Lord Byron, the romantic poet described as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”, you might well imagine that she became a poet, or a notorious libertine (like her famous father), or that she reacted against her father’s life and disappeared into the silence of history. Almost certainly you would not guess that she grew up to be an outstanding mathematician, in an era when women were actively discouraged from obtaining higher education at all, let alone learning math, or that she collaborated with Charles Babbage in the invention of the computer. But in fact, Ada Lovelace earned her fame (or deserved her fame) as a woman with a brilliant mathematical mind, not as the daughter of a wild and dissolute poet.
How Ada turned into what it would not be an exaggeration to describe as the Mother of Computers is the story Jennifer Chiaverini tells in Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace. Ada was fortunate that her mother was a rigorous mathematician in her own right, and a woman determined to protect her from Byron’s influence, and from any possibility that she might turn out to be like her father. That meant Ada was given tutoring in science and math as she was growing up, and kept away from all pernicious subjects like poetry and literature. When she entered London society, Ada met the man who would shape the rest of her life, Charles Babbage, who had already built a prototype of his calculating machine, the Difference Engine, and was working on a more complicated and powerful machine, the Analytic Engine. Ada joined his efforts, determined to help him change the world, and at the same time she pursued her own mathematical studies, fell in love, learned more about her parents’ tempestuous relationship and developed her own fierce imagination.
You don’t have to be a computer nut or a geek to appreciate the world of the 19th century that gave birth to the first computers. You don’t have to be a feminist to appreciate the strength of character that it took for a woman to study math and make a name for herself in the world of science in the 19th century. But if you’re interested in a fun historical novel that will bring that whole world to life, filled with larger than life characters, by all means check out Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace.