Women’s History Month Notable Women Series: Review of“Ada’s Ideas” by Fiona Robinson

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Ada’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, The World’s First Computer Programmer by author/illustrator Fiona Robinson tells the story of Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace, born in 1815, who became a mathematician and writer. Today she is chiefly known as the creator of the first computer algorithm because of her work on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine.

Notably, Ada was also the only legitimate child of the poet George, Lord Byron and his wife Anne, Lady Wentworth. Byron, while now regarded as one of the greatest British poets, during his life was known for his aristocratic excesses, including huge debts and numerous love affairs with both men and women. Lady Wentworth left her husband a month after Ada was born, and Byron left England forever four months later; Ada never knew him.

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Ada’s mother was a skilled mathematician herself; her husband called her “The Princess of Parallelograms.” She encouraged her daughter to study numbers; poetry, the preoccupation of her father, was not allowed.

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When Ada was seventeen, she met Charles Babbage, an engineer, mathematician, and inventor. They became friends over the years, and Ada became especially excited over his description of his “Analytical Engine,” recognized today as the world’s first computer design. Babbage had been inspired by the workings of the Jacquard Loom, which used a string of punched cards for guiding complicated patterns in weaving. Ada offered to figure out how to use the concept to calculate sums.

Ada, aged seventeen, 1832

Ada, aged seventeen, 1832

The Analytical Engine was never made, and Ada died of cancer at the age of thirty-six. But one hundred years after her death in 1852, creators of the first working computers “were stunned by Ada’s futuristic notes and algorithm for Mr. Babbage’s machine.” She saw, the author writes, a future no one else could envision.

Today, computer programmers are very familiar at least with her name; the computer language Ada, created on behalf of the United States Department of Defense, was named after her.

The author/illustrator created the whimsical pictures for the book using Japanese watercolors. Interestingly, as she reports in an Artist’s Note, “The paintings were then cut out using more than five hundred X-Acto blades, assembled, and glued to different depths to achieve a 3-D final artwork.

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Evaluation: Ada’s story, especially that of her unusual upbringing, is quite interesting. And it may inspire young girls to get interested in the STEM program (a curriculum based emphasizing four specific disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics in an interdisciplinary and applied approach).

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2016

Watercolor portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (Ada Lovelace)

Watercolor portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (Ada Lovelace)

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