Discovering Lovelace

11th April 2018

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The remarkable story of Ada Lovelace, often considered the world’s first computer programmer, is told in a new book co-written by Wadham Fellow, Professor Ursula Martin.

  • Professor Ursula Martin with co-author Christopher Hollings

  • The 'doodle' by Ada Lovelace discovered in the Bodleian

A sheet of apparent doodles of dots and lines lay unrecognised in the Bodleian Library until Ursula Martin spotted what it was - a conversation between Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage about finding patterns in networks, a very early forerunner of the sophisticated computer techniques used today by the likes of google and Facebook.

It is just one of the remarkable mathematical images to be found in the new book, Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist, an account of Lovelace’s scientific and mathematical education.

Ada, Countess of Lovelace (1815–1852) was the daughter of romantic poet Lord Byron and his highly educated wife, Anne Isabella. Active in Victorian London's social and scientific elite alongside Mary Somerville, Michael Faraday and Charles Dickens, Ada Lovelace became fascinated by the computing machines devised by Charles Babbage.  A table of mathematical formulae sometimes called the ‘first programme’ occurs in her 1843 paper about his most ambitious invention, his unbuilt ‘Analytical Engine’ which would have had the same computational abilities as a modern general-purpose computer.

Ada Lovelace had no access to formal school or university education but studied science and mathematics from a young age. This book uses previously unpublished archival material to explore her precocious childhood: her ideas for a steam-powered flying horse, pages from her mathematical notebooks, and penetrating questions about the science of rainbows. A remarkable correspondence course with the eminent mathematician Augustus De Morgan shows her developing into a gifted, perceptive and knowledgeable mathematician, not afraid to challenge her teacher over controversial ideas.

 “Lovelace’s far sighted remarks about whether the machine might think, or compose music, still resonate today,” said Professor Martin. “This book shows how Ada Lovelace, with astonishing prescience, learned the maths she needed to understand the principles behind modern computing.”

Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist, by Christopher Hollings, Ursula Martin and Adrian Rice will be launched on 16th April 2018 by Bodleian Library Publishing, in partnership with the Clay Mathematics Institute.  

The page of doodles is on display until February 2019 as part of the Bodleian Library’s exhibition Sappho to Suffrage: women who dared.

Ursula Martin will be speaking at the Hay Festival and Edinburgh Book Festival, and, in the USA, at CUNY, New York, and the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley.