Dreaming in Code: Ada Byron Lovelace, Computer Pioneer

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Release Date: 
March 12, 2019
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“Dreaming in Code is an important project, promoting girls’ contributions in science, and an inspiration to young people in search of creative outlets for their unique intellect.”

The 2014 release of the movie The Imitation Game covered the story of two math geniuses, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), who were hired by the British government to crack German codes during WWII. Mathematics and engineering where the central focus, but Turing and Clarke forged a different direction using computer science. Turing was actually credited as the father of computer science as he endeavored to build a code busting computer from scratch. But nearly 100 years earlier, a similar duo was knee deep in algorithms that would be considered an even greater precursor to the first computer programs.

Dreaming in Code: Ada Byron Lovelace, Computer Pioneer  (1815–1852) is a well-written middle-grade biography by an award winning author about the first woman in history who was dedicated to solving mathematical puzzles with computer (“engine”) processing. Throughout her life, Lovelace demonstrated a sophisticated intelligence that was routinely thwarted by the limited views of Victorian-era women and smothered by tragic illnesses.

Lovelace’s story is divided into five parts that weave together specific events of her life. Lovelace is actually the daughter of the famous British writer/poet Lord Byron, inheriting his wildfire genius. She was raised by her strict and formidable mother and never knew who her father was until she was grown. What is impressive is how well Lovelace adapted to her overbearing mother and was able to receive an excellent education, which was quite rare for girls.

A running theme is how Lovelace persevered through life’s twists and turns by virtue of her charm and intellect, exhibiting tremendous fortitude in the face of unrelenting obstacles. Of course it helped that the family had great wealth, resources, and connections, but Lovelace doggedly stuck to her interests regardless of how it looked in her closed, ignorant society. This was one feisty lady who reveled in thinking outside the box.

As a young teenager, bedridden for years with a case of the measles gone awry, Lovelace dug into her studies and found solace in, of all things, geometry theorems. She progressed so far in her mathematical capacity that she impressed Charles Babbage, chair of mathematics at Cambridge, and a man of society nearly twice Lovelace’s age.

Babbage and Lovelace would carry on a friendship and become, in essence, mathematical colleagues for the rest of Lovelace’s life. It was Babbage who started tinkering with building calculating “engines” that Lovelace in turn, figured out how to operate, thus writing the first ever computer programs. “Her idea that the engine could do more than compute, that numbers were symbols and could represent other concepts, is what made Babbage’s engine a proto-computer.”

Babbage’s machines were not above ridicule, but Lovelace remained a huge believer. Both realized that what they were creating was hundreds of years ahead of the curve and that very few people would truly understand the magnitude of what they were discovering. In fact, Lovelace saw in Babbage and his invention, “an opportunity to make herself as famous as Lord Byron, but for scientific achievement.” She latched on with all her might, riding on Babbage’s male coattails, linking her name with his to lend her intellectual credibility in the male dominated scientific-academic world.

Since the era still hesitated in giving credit to female brain-power, Lovelace’s accomplishments languished for centuries. Though Alan Turing himself referenced Lovelace’s ideas during his codebreaking stint of WWII, it was not until the late 1900s that Lovelace was given a computer language (Ada), a holiday (Ada Lovelace Day, Oct 11) and a digital science award (the Ada Lovelace Award).

Timely and effective, Dreaming in Code is an important project, promoting girls’ contributions in science, and an inspiration to young people in search of creative outlets for their unique intellect.