October 13, 2015

“In her own lifetime her work was hardly understood at all”: An interview with James Essinger


essinger2013In honor of Ada Lovelace Day, we asked James Essinger, author of Ada’s Algorithm, a few questions about his revealing and insightful biography, which is out in paperback today. As Essinger shows, Lovelace was a historical figure whose influence was underappreciated for far too long, but, at long last, this is no longer the case. Ada’s Algorithm is on sale today in honor of Ada Lovelace Day, so read more about the book once you’ve read this exclusive interview.

How did you first encounter Ada Lovelace’s life and work? Could you tell, immediately, that you had stumbled on an important figure, or was the realization more gradual?

I first became interested in Ada Lovelace’s life and work when I started researching the life and work of Charles Babbage in around 1997. Ada was mentioned prominently at the excellent Babbage display at the London Science Museum, and I started trying to find out more about her. Eventually I used what I’d learnt about Ada by around 2004 in my book Jacquard’s Web, which tells the story of the early history of the computer and has a chapter about Ada, and also chapters about Babbage.

I found Ada fascinating from the beginning but it was really only after a few years that I realised how very important she actually is. I am proud to be one of the researchers and writers who has helped alert the information technology world to the fact that Ada had insights into the capabilities of Babbage’s machines that not even he had.

What drove you to write a biography of Lovelace? Did the project seem to become more important as you got further into the writing and research process?

I felt very strongly that Ada deserved a new biography that did full justice to the importance of her work in connection with Babbage’s cogwheel computers which and also presented a holistic portrayal of what she was like as a person. And yes, the further I got into the research and writing process, the more important the biography I was writing became to me because I saw that it would help more people see just how much of a genius she was.

How has Lovelace been seen and judged throughout history? Was she regarded as an important figure in her time, or has it taken this long for her to get the credit she deserves?

There was very little public knowledge of her work until the 1970s, when Babbage’s notes and papers began to be explored in more detail. Alan Turing had, however, known of her work.

From about 1980 until only about five years ago, Ada was chauvinistically seen by most computer scientists, many of who are male of course, as being of little importance to Babbage’s work. One computer scientist, the late Bruce Collier, went so far as to write in his thesis in 1990 that was ‘as mad as a hatter’ and that she was a nuisance to Babbage. It is only during the past five years ago that the mainstream opinion about Ada has changed, and that the core of her achievement – that she saw that Babbage’s Analytical Engine – an early form of digital computer – could be used as a general-purpose machine even though Babbage only saw it as a calculating machine.

In her own lifetime her work was hardly understood at all.

What was the most surprising thing about Lovelace that you discovered in the course of your research?

That she clearly had a strong romantic friendship with Babbage and that he was rather smitten by her and appears to have been jealous when she got married.

A more abstract question: do you think this book contains a lesson (and/or inspiration) for young women looking toward careers in science and engineering?

Most certainly. The lesson is that women should never be put off from starting careers in those areas. I believe that women often have a particularly important role to play in science and engineering as they can bring their emotional intelligence, which is usually superior to men’s (e.g. most of the women I know are more emotionally intelligent than I am) to bear on science and engineering and can often consequently have insights which men may not necessarily have.

What’s next for you?

I plan to write a biography of Babbage, called Machines of the Mind. I also want to finish a novel I’m writing called The Ada Lovelace Project.

Ada’s Algorithm is now available in paperback.

Mark Krotov is senior editor at Melville House.