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Ada Lovelace: Poet of Science

Her fa­ther was the cel­e­brated Ro­man­tic poet Lord By­ron. Afraid that she was “act­ing like her fa­ther,” her mother — who was “ra­tio­nal, re­spectable, and strict” — saw that her daugh­ter got a world-class sci­en­tific ed­u­ca­tion.

Today, Ada Lovelace is ac­knowl­edged as the world’s first com­puter pro­gram­mer, and the U.S. De­part­ment of De­fense even named an early com­puter lan­guage after her. The Bri­tish Com­puter So­ci­ety has awarded a medal in her name, and each year on the sec­ond Tues­day of Oc­to­ber, Ada Lovelace Day events cel­e­brate the achieve­ments of women in science, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing, and math­e­mat­ics (STEM). Now young read­ers, es­pe­cially girls, in grades 2 to 5 will have an op­por­tu­nity to learn more about Lovelace’s achieve­ments in a book writ­ten by Diane Stan­ley and il­lus­trated by Jessie Hart­land, pub­lished this month by Si­mon & Schus­ter Books for Young Read­ers.

In an era when ed­u­ca­tors are en­cour­ag­ing girls to nei­ther be afraid of math and science nor to be pushed out of those fields, Lovelace’s story is par­tic­u­larly rel­e­vant. “Here’s this per­son,” Stan­ley said, “born to celebrity, who lived a strange, reclu­sive life, made to do con­ven­tional things, and then just soared on her own. She fol­lowed her own in­ter­ests and abil­i­ties and made this re­ally great con­tri­bu­tion. She had a good mind, a good ed­u­ca­tion, and wanted to do some­thing with it. The mes­sage is that you [can] do any­thing. Don’t let some­body tell you you can’t do some­thing be­cause you’re a girl.”

Ada Lovelace: Poet of Science opens with a story il­lus­trat­ing Lovelace’s imag­i­na­tion. As a child, she ob­served birds and then de­signed wings and a har­ness for her­self, fan­ta­siz­ing about at­tach­ing them to her back and fly­ing house to house to de­liver the mail. That was too much for her mother, whose mar­riage to Lord By­ron had only lasted a year. Fear­ing By­ron’s wild in­flu­ence, she be­gan bring­ing in pri­vate tu­tors to ed­u­cate her daugh­ter in science, math, chem­istry, and bi­ol­ogy.

In 1833, at age sev­en­teen, Lovelace met Charles Bab­bage, a Bri­tish math­e­ma­ti­cian and me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer who had in­vented a cal­cu­lat­ing ma­chine. A decade later, to help

win fi­nan­cial sup­port for his work, Lovelace trans­lated an ar­ti­cle on Bab­bage’s An­a­lyt­i­cal En­gine from French into English. Bab­bage asked her to add notes show­ing the pub­lic how the de­vice would work, and Lovelace showed how Bernoulli num­bers — a com­pli­cated se­quence named after the Swiss math­e­ma­ti­cian Ja­cob Bernoulli — could be coded on the ma­chine. She also spec­u­lated on other pos­si­ble uses for the en­gine, in­clud­ing play­ing games such as chess and check­ers, writ­ing mu­sic, and re­pro­duc­ing images. Bab­bage’s ma­chine, con­sid­ered the first fully pro­gram­mable dig­i­tal com­puter, was pow­ered by steam and far too ex­pen­sive to build in his life­time, al­though a replica is cur­rently be­ing con­structed by Lon­don’s Science Mu­seum. Lovelace — who died in 1852 at thirty-six, the same age as her fa­ther — never wrote an­other sci­en­tific pa­per.

Stan­ley, a Santa Fe au­thor who has writ­ten and/or il­lus­trated 58 books for chil­dren, was asked by Paula Wise­man, who has her own im­print at Si­mon & Schus­ter, to take on the Ada Lovelace project, which be­came her 13th biog­ra­phy for young read­ers (the first pro­filed Peter

the Great). Stan­ley’s Shaka: King of the Zu­lus was named a New York Times Best Il­lus­trated Book, and 10 of her works have been des­ig­nated No­table Books by the Amer­i­can Li­brary As­so­ci­a­tion. She’s also been hon­ored with the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and the So­ci­ety of Chil­dren’s Book Writers and Il­lus­tra­tors’ Golden Kite Award.

This time around, Stan­ley said, there wasn’t much re­source ma­te­rial. She re­lied heav­ily on a book by Betty Alexan­dra Toole, pub­lished in 1992, which in­cluded a se­lec­tion of Lovelace’s let­ters that Toole hand-copied at the Bodleian Li­brary at Ox­ford. Ben­jamin Wool­ley’s The Bride of Science: Ro­mance, Rea­son and By­ron’s Daugh­ter, pub­lished in 1999, was an­other source.

After get­ting her bach­e­lor’s de­gree from Trin­ity Univer­sity, Stan­ley earned a mas­ter’s de­gree in med­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal il­lus­tra­tion from Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity School of Medicine and worked as a med­i­cal il­lus­tra­tor, a graphic de­signer for Dell Pub­lish­ing, and an art di­rec­tor at G.P. Put­nam’s Sons. She be­came an il­lus­tra­tor of chil­dren’s books, often com­plet­ing sev­eral a year, be­fore start­ing to write her own sto­ries. It was the Peter the Great biog­ra­phy that put her on the map, she said.

Stan­ley’s fic­tion ti­tles for chil­dren in­clude The Gi­ant and the Beanstalk (HarperCollins, 2004) and Rumpel­stilt­skin’s

Daugh­ter (HarperCollins, 2002), as well as some nov­els for older read­ers. Next sum­mer HarperCollins will pub­lish her mid­dle-grade novel Jo­plin, Wish­ing, a story set in New York about a girl who is stuck in time and an evil ma­gi­cian who runs an an­tique shop.

Ada Lovelace by Mar­garet Sarah Car­pen­ter, 1836

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