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.      

Writing Fiction – a user – friendly guide by James Essinger – A resource for writers of many types


This is a book with many useful points for writers. It well earns its subtitle of a User – friendly guide, as it is a readable book in its own right. It also features an index, which is a very helpful addition to a book which is likely to be well bookmarked with post it notes. Having been a member of a creative writing group for several years, I recognise the style and content of a friendly and honest teacher. Essinger is obviously a person of great experience and insight into the writing and publishing process, and honestly suggests the common mistakes that new writers often make. This is a fairly basic book, which refers to everything from grammar howlers which apparently let down otherwise interesting submissions, through to some fascinating details about sense data and other ways of conveying the characters’ activities in a novel. 


Essinger makes frequent reference to a book called “How Not to Write a Novel” by Newman and Mittlemark which apparently gives many details of the mistakes to avoid in writing and submitting novels. This book is more positive; it advises what to do and why with examples from novels, stories and even screen plays. It mentions how most successful authors do not pass on how to do it, but provides the details of a few who do. He refers to several writers of screenplays who have shared hints and secrets from some famous films, as he discusses the overlap between screenplays and novels. I recommend this as a super book for anyone who has an interest in writing novels, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. 


This book covers many basic points, such as the best length for a novel and the importance of having a hero, with some sort of quest. He acknowledges that there are always exceptions to the rules such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, but that nonetheless the principles hold good. He points out that even she had rejections both in her own name and an assumed pen name. He urges, for example,  that every novel needs a professional edit before submission. Being a book published in 2019, he is writing about exactly the situation today, which is worth knowing for anyone who is trying to write today. The tricky question of dialogue is discussed, as well as the need for some suspense.


This book is quite slim, and would not replace a creative writing course. It is a reference book for anyone who wishes to write for publication, and gives many positive hints as well as the obvious pitfalls. It also helps those of us who write about books to spot the elements of good writing and good finished manuscripts, so is a worthwhile practical book to own for many people. I found it very readable, and I suspect I will return to it if only to justify my thoughts on a book. It would make a very useful book for anyone who has ever thought of writing for others, or even privately.  I would have liked to see a bibliography of other writing books and resources. It manages to cover a wide range of subjects within the field of writing fiction, and is a very worthwhile book.