Charles and Ada by Essinger -The beginning of computer science with Babbage and Lovelace

 

This book calls the relationship between Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace “The Computer’s Most Passionate Partnership”. It is a book which uses considerable research into the extant letters and papers of Charles dating from the first half of the nineteenth century. Fortunately, some of Ada’s letters have also survived, and it is these in addition to her published Notes on a mathematical work that provide some of her part of the story. This book has most to say about Charles, a rich man who devoted much of his life to the theoretical background of two machines which had the potential to revolutionise information technology . His tragic family history and somewhat intractable personality are examined as probable explanations for his failure to actually oversee the construction of the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine which would have made possible the automatic calculation of complicated mathematical problems. 

 

This book details the development of Babbage’s thought which broke barriers in the world of complex mathematics, but much of it depended on the actual construction of machines which were at the edge of what anyone thought could be achieved at the time. It expresses some of the frustration with unfulfilled plans that could have achieved so much and made such a difference to the Industrial Revolution. This is also a personal story of two lives, affected by their parentage, and shaped by the ability and ambition to achieve more than even dreamt of by virtually anyone else. A fascinating subject, this book flows so well as to be enjoyable and very readable. I was pleased to have the opportunity  to read and review this book.

 

The book is very interesting on the parentage of both of the mathematicians. Benjamin Babbage, Charles’ father, was a man with an eye to the main chance who went into a form of banking, and made a considerable fortune which in time Charles inherited the bulk of, a fact commented on by Georgina, Charles’ wife whose tragically early death transformed Charles’ life. Ada Lovelace was the only legitimate offspring of the poet Lord Byron, and her determined mother helped to ensure that the brilliant child became a gifted mathematician and translator. The progress of Charles’ theories concerning the way that complex equations and mathematics could be worked out by mechanical means is carefully introduced. Essinger’s assertions are carefully backed up by reference to Charles’ correspondence, which means that there are copies of letters applying for positions and recalling when and what Charles thought about the machines. It acknowledges the inspiration of the Jacquard looms and its breakthrough use of punched cards to make possible complex silk weaving into complex patterns and even pictures. It also reproduces Charles’ account of his climatic meeting with Robert Peel, and suggests that the financial fallout of the unfinished Difference Engine was one of the main, if not the only, reason for much of Charles’ unfinished plans.

The question of Ada’s contribution or otherwise to Charles’ work is expanded through the book. The actions of her mother in securing an advantageous marriage is significant to the story, as well as speculation regarding the possibility of a romantic attachment between Ada and Charles. The information regarding Ada is lacking at times, but the theory that she provided encouragement and facilitated discussion of Charles’ theories from her unique understanding of his work is an important element of the book. It is suggested that she had the ability to do far more than he would allow in pushing the theories through to the actual building of the engines, and that she made a realistic offer to recast the calculations necessary which was rebuffed by the independent Babbage. It also emphasises that Ada not only translated a French mathematical treatise, but wrote a much more complex set of Notes on it. The brilliance of the work is still discussed today; it is obvious that her early death robbed the beginnings of information technology of someone who had the capacity to make a real contribution.

 

This is a book which attempts in a very readable form to make a reasoned argument for Babbage’s brilliance but lack of practical application. It devotes less space to Ada, but refers to other writing by this author so that may be balanced out. This is a compact and well written, well argued book for the non specialist  with an interest in the beginnings of computer science on a personal level. The useful index and bibliography would enable someone to take a study of both significant characters beyond this altogether admirable book.      


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