alexandra alger


Archive for the month “February, 2017”

A Saturday Moment

I was in the fish store today picking up some smoked salmon, not at all aware that I was in any kind of mood at all–good or bad–when a man came in with a thick paperback, textbook size, under one arm. I was momentarily charmed by the idea of this guy doing his chores holding a book that big, and nothing else. Was he a teacher? Mystery solved when I went to pay and there he was, reading out loud from what  turned out to be a Spanish cookbook. He was buying the ingredients for a seafood paella. “Let’s see,” he was saying. “Two pounds of shrimp, and….”

I walked out, grinning. Suddenly I was happy. Something about that man, bringing  his cook book to the fish store, filled me with joy. I walked toward the vegetable store, wondering who’d I see there.

On Ada Byron Lovelace


I’ve been reading children’s picture-book biographies lately, and I’ve come across three on Ada Byron Lovelace, all published in the last two years.

Ada of the poetic name is considered the first computer programmer. A first in the tech field, who isn’t Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, who’s in fact a woman? Who lived in the 1800s, more than 150 years before the first modern computer came into being? Of course there’s a book on her, or two or three! She has an interesting heritage, too. She was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron and a wealthy English woman who was determined to instill in her daughter a love of math and science—not poetry. Once you know all this, you wonder why there aren’t half-a-dozen picture books about Ada Byron Lovelace. I wouldn’t be surprised if other books for kids were in the works, like a middle-grade biography. Why not one for the YA crowd?

Ada’s life was colorful, but it ended all too soon. The work for which she is recognized today was published in 1843, when she was 27, and she died of cancer at 36. You’d think there would be one clear path for a biographer—but no two people tell the same story the same way, as these picture books show.

Creston Books was the first out of the door with Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine, by Laurie Wallmark in November 2015. Wallmark, a computer-science teacher (according to her book bio), focuses on Ada’s interest in and devotion to numbers from an early age. This Ada is lonely and often left alone to draw and dream up inventions. The first time we see Ada as a child she’s sitting outside in the grass with her cat and her books, imagining the flight of a wooden bird she’s designed.

Next thing we know, Ada is at her desk—she looks to be in her early teens—surrounded by sketches and diagrams for a set of wings she’s invented. April Chu’s illustrations are highly detailed, jewel-toned panoramas; I admire the wooden floors, the leather books, the lushness of Ada’s upper-class home. We see Ada outside in a storm, watching the effects of the wind on her sailboat: “A storm of numbers and calculations whirred in her mind and spilled onto her pages.” (It can’t be much of a storm—her notes are untouched by the wind and rain—but never mind.)

Ada ends up coming down with measles, a case so serious that she’s temporarily blinded and paralyzed. She doesn’t walk without the aid of crutches for three long years. During this period, Ada’s mother keeps her mind busy with math problems. Three years of doing little else but math: That in itself seems an astonishing feat. Her mother is not the only one nurturing her talent, though. She has tutors like mathematician and scientist Mary Fairfax Somerville, who was, Wallmark writes, “living proof that girls could do math and do it well.” This is the first and last mention of the limited prospects for girls with intellectual interests. Wallmark remains focused on Ada as a singular young woman, which she was.

At seventeen and old enough to go to parties, Ada meets Charles Babbage, a famous inventor and mathematician. “Babbage didn’t’t see her as simply a young girl. He treated her like a fellow mathematician and inventor she already was.” He is, it appears, her first friend ever. Sad, but not unexpected, is it?

Baggage shows her his latest invention, “a revolutionary mechanical calculator” he calls his Difference Engine. In Chu’s rendering, it’s a rectangular mass of brass cylinders and cogs and columns, just compact enough to sit on a tabletop. Ada gives the machine a multiplication problem to figure out—12 x 15, one she can do in her head—and it comes up with the correct answer, 180. There’s no way to really understand how the thing works, though possibly someone with more of a math brain than I have might grasp the gist (I’m thinking a parent, here). I wouldn’t look to Wiki for help, not unless this means something to you: “A difference engine is an automatic mechanical calculator designed to tabulate polynomial functions.”

As it turns out, Babbage is famous for another invention, the Analytical Engine. This, we learn, “would solve harder problems by working through them, step by step. It could even make decisions all by itself, a true thinking machine.” This machine, unlike the calculator, was still in the theoretical stage.

Here’s where Ada steps up to the plate. Ada takes home thirty of Babbage’s lab books and studies his diagrams and technical descriptions. She realizes the machine needs numbers to make it work—it’s not, we gather, a thinking machine, after all. She decides to come up with an algorithm, “a set of mathematical instructions.” for the A.E. And guess what—this became the world’s first computer program.

Ada grasps that the machine is more than a calculator; she foresees the computer age. “She imagined computers would someday design powerful flying machines and majestic sailing ships. They would draw pictures and compose music. And they would play games and help with schoolwork.”

Alas, Babbage never built the A.E., so Ada never got to see her program run. But, as we learn on the last page, the influence of her work lives on. We learn that a computer language would be named after her, and one of its uses would be to guide modern flying machines. “The girl who needed crutches ended up flying after all!”

Wallmark includes end notes that give more details on Ada’s algorithm and other writing she did on scientific subjects. A quibble: Readers have no idea until they reach the timeline behind the end notes that Ada died young, or indeed that she married—hence the name “Lovelace”—and had three children during the time she worked with Babbage.

The two other books—no doubt deliberately—take step back from numbers and diagrams to show Ada as both a woman of her time and a woman ahead of her time; they also emphasize Ada’s imaginative talents as much as her mathematic skill.
Ada’s ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer, by author-illustrator Fiona Robinson (Abrams Books for Young Readers), published in August 2016, draws our eye with her exquisite illustrations, composed of delicate watercolor drawings that have been cut out, assembled and then photographed.

This Ada, who has creamy skin and two spots of pink on her cheeks, is a girl with spunk, a girl who studies dutifully (she’s locked in a closet if she doesn’t!) but finds her chief inspiration in the scientific and mechanical wonders of the Industrial Revolution. Ada’s mother takes Ada on factory tours, where she sees steam-powered machinery at work. This leads to her idea for a steam-powered flying horse. To her mother’s dismay—and the reader’s glee—Ada’s “…imagination could not be confined by math, because Ada was starting to find her own sort of poetic expression…through math!” I love that line, and the idea of there being poetry in math—for an elite few.

Robinson gives us fascinating details about Babbage’s Analytical Engine, placing it in the context of the Industrial Revolution. The A.E.’s design was based an existing machine, a mechanical loom named for its inventor, Joseph Marie Jacquard. A chain of hole-punched paper cards told the machine how to weave silk into a complex pattern. Babbage believed a similar system could be used to calculate complex math problems. (Not until this part of the book does the reader understand that the book’s endpaper graphics are hole-punched cards laid end to end.) “Ada,” Robinson writes, “excitedly offered to figure out the algorithm, or instructions, that would be punched into the cards.”

If you’ve read Wallmark’s book, you’re wondering—what about the lab books, what about Ada figuring that Babbage had the wrong idea about his thinking machine? Wallmark gives full credit to Ada for figuring out that the A.E. needed programming, that it was never going to compute on its own. In Robinson’s telling, Ada volunteers to come up with an algorithm as if it were already clear one would be needed, as if Babbage just hadn’t gotten around to it. In either case, Ada takes the initiative to come up with a working algorithm, and later it’s clear that she alone saw the potential of Babbage’s machine. Still, the choice of language in each case creates a subtly different view of Ada’s role.Was Ada the go-getter who out-thought Babbage at every turn? Or was she a protégé who wound up outshining her mentor? Hallmark and Robinson consult many of the same sources; it’s not as if one had more info than the other. It’s possible the historical record is murky on this point, open to interpretation. I’d guess she was both—a go-getter who didn’t have the freedom and opportunity to go out and get; and a steadfast collaborator to a fellow inventor who was simply not as brilliant as she.

I give Robinson credit for attempting to illustrate the flow of the algorithm with a series of paper swirls in different colors, each representing a calculation. I love the illustrations, but did I understand the algorithm any better? Thank goodness I don’t have a girl at home. I’d end up providing her with an anecdote she’ll be throwing back at me for decades. “Mom, remember that picture book you couldn’t explain to me?” I also like that Robinson  tells us on the final pages that Ada dies at a young age. It seems important that we know this—because chances are, she would’ve gone on to even greater accomplishments if she hadn’t gotten cancer. Spookily, she died at the same age as her famous father. Too bad she didn’t have Babbage’s genes—he ended up living another 28 years.



In her Ada Lovelace, Poet of science: The First Computer Programmer, which came out last November (Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster), author Diane Stanley gives us a twenty-first-century girl can relate to. She’s less of a lonely brainiac than a girl who had really cool ideas and figures out how to act on them. Almost first thing, we hear how about the pair of wings that Ada makes herself because she “imagined it would be fun to fly.”

Jessie Hartland’s cheery illustrations show Ada with a smile like a capital C on its back and two spots of pink on her cheeks (oddly similar to Robinson’s pink cheeks). This Ada is an exuberant spirit. She gets a “first-class scientific education,” but there’s no talk of closets. We don’t hear about any of Ada’s struggles—the measles, the painful three-year recovery. We see the precocious girl in a factory, watching a Jacquard Loom at work and wondering if the punched-hole cards could be used for other purposes. Wowza. Did a teenage Ada really foresee the A.E., and ultimately, the computer? Since I have to assume that Stanley knows what she’s talking about, Ada must really have had have this revolutionary thought, in which case Wallmark and Robinson missed out on something quite amazing.

Stanley adds notes of humor when appropriate—as when Ada began going to parties in London, at age seventeen, and finds herself tongue-tied. “Everyone wanted to meet Ada because she was Lord Byron’s daughter. But she didn’t know what to say to them. She didn’t care about fashion, fox hunting, or court gossip.” Aha! I was wondering where these sorts of aristocrats were—the kind that everyone from Jane Austen to Nancy Mitford has satirized. And Ada’s mother, we learn, insists on Ada get married. “Ada didn’t need a profession. What she needed was a husband.” She may have been a genius, but in the nineteenth century, being brilliant didn’t exempt a girl from her traditional responsibilities.

Babbage comes across as both a man of his time and a visionary. While Robinson credits Babbage with inventing the first “computer design,” Stanley calls the A.E. “the first fully programmable all-purpose digital computer”. She also calls Babbage’s and Ada’s was “one of the most remarkable friendships in the history of science.”

Babbage, in this telling, isn’t a dreamer; he’s intent on getting his machine built. Babbage sees he can’t hope to build his machine without a lot of money—and to raise the money, he needs publicity. There’s an article about the A.E. in French—what if it were published in Britain? This is where Ada comes in. She goes about translating the article (on top of everything else, she was fluent in French!). Babbage asks her to add her own notes about what an “all-purpose computing machine” like the A.E. could do, and Babbage and Ada decide together what kind of algorithm could serve as a test of the machine’s capabilities. This is what Stanley focuses on—the algorithm as part of an effort to bring attention to the A.E. The article establishedAda’s work for the ages, though few people at the time knew about her contribution to history—she signed her “Notes by the Translator” with her initials. She believed her work wouldn’t get the attention it deserved if readers knew the writer was a woman.

If I had to choose just one of these Ada books to read to a child, I might start with Stanley’s and Hartland’s. Their Ada is just so engaging. But kids drawn to Ada Lovelace may want to read all three books. They’ll see how many ways there are to tell one story.

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