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Review of Ada’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer

robinson_ada's ideasAda’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer
by Fiona Robinson; 
illus. by the author
Primary    Abrams    40 pp.
8/16    978-1-4197-1872-4    $17.95
e-book ed.  978-1-61312-913-5    $15.54

Whisked away as a newborn by Anne Milbanke, her strait-laced mathematician mother, Ada Lovelace (1815–1852) never knew her father, the impetuous Romantic poet Lord Byron. Determined to suppress Ada’s imagination (and any other of Byron’s “reckless” traits), Milbanke banned poetry, urging her daughter to explore numbers instead. Yet Ada still “[found] her own sort of poetical expression…through math!” Inspired by the Industrial Revolution’s new steam-powered machinery, young Ada envisioned a fanciful contraption: a flying mechanical horse. A serious bout of measles sidelined her “Flyology” work, but her ingenuity soon whirred again when she met inventor Charles Babbage. Writing a complex algorithm for Babbage’s Analytical Engine (an early computer prototype) to calculate Bernoulli numbers, Ada became the first computer programmer — and a visionary one at that, foreseeing programs for “pictures, music, and words” more than one hundred years before the first functional computers were built. Robinson’s writing is direct and deft (if exclamation point–heavy) and mostly accessible to younger readers. But what really steal the show are her whimsical illustrations: paper cutouts arranged in layers and photographed for a striking collage effect. Robinson’s eye-catching images feature equations, geometric diagrams, and math instruments, artfully emphasizing the picture-book biography’s conclusion that for Ada Lovelace, “a great imagination proved just as important as mathematical skill.” A bibliography and brief notes about Bernoulli numbers and the book’s illustrations are appended. [See also: review of Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science.]

From the January/February 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

About Tanya D. Auger

Tanya D. Auger is a former middle school teacher with a master’s degree in learning and teaching from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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