Labor of Lovelace: A Children’s Introduction to a Programming Giant

Author Laurie Wallmark on Ada Lovelace.

By Emilie Haertsch | October 6, 2017
Portrait of Ada Lovelace
Courtesy of Wallmark

Each year in October, Ada Lovelace Day celebrates women in science. It’s fittingly named after the British mathematician known as the first computer programmer. Laurie Wallmark, author of the children’s book Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine and a mathematician in her own right, knows a thing or two about this brilliant, oft-overlooked historical figure. In honor of the event Distillations interviewed Wallmark about what makes Lovelace such an enduring icon.

Lovelace is known, in part, because of her parentage. Her father was Lord Byron, a poet who exemplified the Romantic era in which he lived. Her mother, Anne Isabella Milbanke, raised Ada on her own and had her educated in logic and numbers rather than the poetry of her father, which her mother deemed immoral because of Byron’s freewheeling lifestyle. Lovelace, sickly for much of her childhood, spent her time dreaming of inventions, such as a bird-like flying machine, and performing the calculations that might make them possible. As a young woman she met fellow mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage. Lovelace saw great potential in Babbage’s “analytical machine,” an early prototype of a computer, and created the first algorithm for it. Her notes on Babbage’s “engine” contain what many believe to be the first computer program. Lovelace’s vision of the machine’s expansive capabilities went far beyond the basic calculations done by Babbage and others and anticipated the great role computers would come to play in our society.

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Ada Lovelace

Courtesy of Wallmark

Lovelace faced many difficulties to working in the mathematical field, including gender prejudice and ill health. Perhaps that is one reason that Wallmark was drawn to her.  Wallmark became a mathematician and computer programmer in the 20th century, but she still had to largely take the initiative herself. Every mathematician Wallmark learned about in school was “a white man with a beard.” Undeterred, she read as many books and articles on the subject as she could while growing up and continued to pursue her passion into adulthood.

But Wallmark, who worked as a programmer and then a professor for many years, never forgot her foremother. When she turned her attention to writing a children’s book later in her career, the subject matter was obvious. “Ada was the world’s first computer programmer,” Wallmark says. “This made her the perfect subject for my debut picture-book biography.”

Although more than a century has passed since Lovelace died, girls and young women with an interest in entering STEM fields may recognize their own experiences in the book’s depictions of Lovelace’s struggles. “Ada had to overcome many challenges on her road to becoming a professional mathematician. The time period she grew up in, Regency England, was not known for its opportunities for women,” Wallmark says. She hopes that learning about Lovelace’s life can inspire the next generation of STEM professionals to be persistent. “It’s important for young people to realize [that] although life may throw roadblocks in their way, they can often find a way around and succeed,” she says.

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Ada Lovelace

Courtesy of Wallmark

Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine doesn’t offer only an inspiring message, however. Some of it is just plain fun! Wallmark referenced Ada Lovelace’s cat, Mrs. Puff, in the text, and the book’s illustrator, Katy Wu, chose to incorporate the feline as a motif. As Lovelace pursues adventures and experiments with inventions, the cat is her partner every step of the way. “When I do book readings, the children love pointing out when Mrs. Puff appears,” Wallmark says.

Since publishing this picture-book biography Wallmark has turned her attention to another great woman in STEM: Grace Hopper, a U.S. Navy rear admiral and an early-20th-century pioneer in computer science. In the meantime, however, she continues to honor the legacy of Lovelace. And how does she celebrate Ada Lovelace Day? “Last year I gave talks encouraging girls to embrace STEM at New York University and to a technology company in California,” Wallmark says. Lovelace would be proud.