Review | In Byron’s Wake : by Miranda Seymour

The turbulent lives of Lord Byron’s wife and daughter . . Annabella Milbanke and Ada Lovelace

If you find 19th century Victorian England interesting or perhaps you are a digital enthusiast with a capacity for the mathematical, either way, you will find this dual biography of Annabella Milbanke and Ada Lovelace surprisingly full of complex characters, not the least of which is Lord Byron.

Annabella Milbanke and Lord George Gordon Byron married in 1815 and their daughter Ada was born in the same year. Byron spoke of his newly born daughter, “Oh! What an implement of torture I have acquired in you!” The marriage between the erratic, abusive and womanizing poet and Annabella was brief and unhappy. During Ada’s first year of life, Byron left England and never saw his daughter again. In 1824, Byron died at the age of thirty-six.

Ada was brought up by a mother who became one of the most progressive reformers in Victorian England. Lady Byron, herself a mathematical wiz, saw to it that Ada, from the age of four, was tutored in mathematics and science. This degree of education was unusual for an aristocratic girl in 19th century England. Annabella believed that by engaging Ada in rigorous studies she would be prevented from developing her father’s moody and unpredictable temperament.

At age 12, Ada conceptualized the invention of a flying machine and by age 17, Charles Babbage had become her mentor. Baggage was a mathematician and inventor and later would become known as “the father of the computer”. Baggage created plans for a device known as the analytical engine, designed to handle complex calculations. Lovelace wrote of how the machine could be programmed with code to calculate Bernoulli numbers. Some consider this to be the first algorithm to be carried out by a machine – The first computer program.

Babbage’s analytical engine

Lovelace envisioned the multi-purpose functionality of the modern computer. Beyond numerical calculations, she mused that any piece of content – music, text, pictures, and sounds – could be translated to digital form.

Ada’s health suffered after a bout with cholera in 1837. She had lingering problems with asthma and her digestive system for the remainder of her life. Doctors gave her laudanum and opium causing mood swings and hallucinations. By 1852, Lovelace, suffering from cancer, passed away at the age of 36. Even though Ada didn’t know Lord Byron she requested to be buried next to him in the Byron family vault.

Ada Lovelace’s contributions to the field of computer science were not publicly discovered until the 1950’s – when B. V. Bowden, in 1953, republished her notes on Babbage’s analytical engine, in his book – “Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines”.

Tragically, it seems the world was not ready to recognize Ada during her own short life.

During the 1970’s, the U. S. Department of Defense developed a high-order computer programming language and named it “Ada” in honor of Lovelace. “Ada” continues to be used around the world in aviation, health care, transportation, financial, infrastructure and space industries.

Published by Audrey Newhall

I am an avid reader and contributor to Penna Book Reviews

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