Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Charles And Ada by James Essinger

Charles and Ada: The Computer's Most Passionate Partnership by James Essinger
Published by The History Press on the 22nd August 2019.

One of my 2019 New Release Challenge reads

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The partnership of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace was one that would change science forever.

They were an unlikely pair – one the professor son of a banker, the other the only child of an acclaimed poet and a social-reforming mathematician – but perhaps that is why their work is so revolutionary.

They were the pioneers of computer science, creating plans for what could have been the first computer. They each saw things the other did not; it may have been Charles who designed the machines, but it was Ada who could see their potential.

But what were they like? And how did they work together? Using previously unpublished correspondence between them , Charles and Ada explores the relationship between two remarkable people who shared dreams far ahead of their time.

I've known of the name Ada Lovelace for some time, mainly through the Ada Lovelace Day initiative, so was aware of her importance to women in science but, I'm embarrassed to say, hadn't actually taken the trouble to find out what specifically she is famous for until I got this chance to read James Essinger's biography, Charles and Ada. I had a similar level of ignorance towards Charles Babbage so reading and reviewing for the book's blog tour has been a real and welcome education!

I felt the book concentrated more on presenting Charles' whole life whereas the title had led me to expect a stronger focus on his and Ada's working relationship, however I understand that original source material is difficult to come by so Essinger is obviously limited on that score. He does allow himself a number of wistful What If moments though and I enjoyed wondering how different our current world might be if Ada's genius had been allowed more scope in the completion of Charles' Engines.

Essinger nicely fills in a lot of background information about the towns in which Charles and Ada lived at various points, and about the political situation in England at the time they lived. The English lack of support for science and scientists rang particularly true when compared to the present day when their work still seems to often be derided or even ignored, and many must still decamp overseas for greater opportunities! I did feel that Charles and Ada might have ended up as too long a book, given the scarcity direct information available about them. While I appreciate the way in which poetry and lengthy quotes were used as scene setting, they did come to feel like padding after a while. The author's insistence on pushing the idea of a romantic relationship between Charles and Ada also wore a little thin. However, overall, I thought Charles and Ada was a neat portrayal of two very unique people and I enjoyed learning about their personalities and their lives.

Meet the author

James Essinger was born in Leicester in 1957 and has lived in Canterbury in Kent since 1986. He was educated at Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys, Leicester, and at Lincoln College, Oxford, where he read English Language and Literature. He spent much of his time between 1981 and 1983 teaching English in Finland before working in public relations in London and then in Canterbury.

Since 1988, James has been a professional writer. His non-fiction books include Jacquard's Web (2004), Ada’s Algorithm (2013), which is to be filmed by Monumental Pictures, and Charles and Ada: the computer’s most passionate partnership (2019) His novels include The Mating Game (2016) with Jovanka Houska, the film rights of which have been optioned, Rollercoaster (2019) and The Ada Lovelace Project (forthcoming in 2020).

Author links: 
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  1. I love how you do some research about the books you're reading as well, so you were aware of the limited source material that was worked with and didn't judge the book to harshly for being skewered to more about Charles and then solely the working relationship with him and Ada.

    1. I'm happy I got to learn so much about them both here but, yes, the limitations of the information available to Essinger were frustrating!

  2. It annoys me that Ada Lovelace was respected in her own time, but in the 20th Century (and in one 1990 article in particular) her contributions to Babbage's work were downplayed and undermined with the assumption that Babbage must have been using Ada's prominence in society and fame (she *was* Byron's daughter, after all,) to publicise his work.

    ...There's a lot of random historical trivia in my head! XD

    1. You're absolutely right and this is an aspect of their story that Essinger discusses too. I'd have thought Ada's Notes alone were enough to justify her work, but I guess some spiteful folks will always choose to diminish others :-/

    2. Especially when those 'others' are women!