October 13th is Ada Lovelace Day, and to honor the occasion, I bring you this interview with James Essinger, author of the biography Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age, which I recommend every #TeamAda fan should read. On with the questions.
Q: James, can you tell readers a bit about your background
I always loved writing stories and was always pretty good at English at school. By the time I was eighteen I was one of the most highly-rated junior chess-players in Britain. I went to Oxford University, where I studied English Language and Literature. After university, I went to live in Finland, a country I’d become interested in. I spent three nine-month periods in Finland, and I learnt Finnish, a language I love. Between 1984 and around March 1988 I worked in public relations, from 1984 to August 1986 in London, and then in August 1986 I came to live in Canterbury, which is in Kent, in south-east England. It’s a wonderful city: old and historical but with a real buzz. I love living here.
Since March 1988 I have been a self-employed freelance writer and public relations consultant. In 2011 I also set up a literary agency, Canterbury Literary Agency.
I started my writing career writing books and book-length reports about management strategy and applications of IT in business. In 2004 I published my first general book, Jacquard’s Web, about the origins of the computer. I subsequently published Spellbound, a book about the story of English spelling, and in October 2013 my book A Female Genius, my biography of Ada Lovelace, was published in the UK. The US version, titled Ada’s Algorithm, was published in October 2014. I included an extra 5,000 words or so in the US edition, some of which I’d written for the UK edition but which had not been included. The book has also been sold for publication in Spanish, and in October 2015, paperback editions of the book are to be published in the UK and the US.
I also write fiction, and I also edit fiction for certain clients of Canterbury Literary Agency. I published my first novel in 2011, but I wrote it as a ghost-writer so I can’t say much more about it. I have also written a novel for young people, Cantia, about a last underground outpost of the Roman Empire beneath Canterbury, and I’m working on a novel, The Ada Lovelace Project, about Ada Lovelace. The last novel I finished I wrote as a wedding-present for a good friend of mine, the lady chess-player Jovanka Houska, under whose name I would like the book to be published. Written in the first person, it’s called The Mating Game and is (I hope) an entertaining story about a lady chess-player and her career, friendships and relationships. It is currently with publishers.
I still play chess, but only as a hobby.
Q: What attracted you to the subject of Ada Lovelace?
I think she is one of the greatest female geniuses in the history of science.
Q: In her letters Ada seemed inordinately fond of underlining words. As someone who’s spent time reading through her handwritten letters, did you come to appreciate anything about Ada’s personality that readers of a typeset book might not immediately appreciate?
I do think her love of underlining words, which I reproduce in my book about Ada as italics, is indeed something very striking one notices when one reads the actual letters. Otherwise, I think one can appreciate the letters as much in print as handwritten, but the one other thing I’d like to mention is that holding in one’s hands the actual letters she wrote is a deeply moving experience and made me feel very close to her.
Q: What is one surprising fact about Ada that most people don’t realize?
It’s not too widely known that when Ada was a girl she had a cat, called Puff, in which she doted.
I also think her friendship with Babbage was much closer than can be known for certain from the extant correspondence they wrote to one another. I think it indisputable that many of Babbage’s letters to Ada were burned, probably under the instructions of her mother, Lady Byron, after Ada’s premature death. We know for certain that one letter he wrote to her does not survive because she mentions it in one of her letters to him. She even quotes a sentence from it: ‘why does my friend prefer imaginary roots for our friendship?’ I think there must have been many other letters that Babbage wrote to Ada, and doubtless too letters from Ada to Babbage that haven’t survived.
Q: In Sydney Padua’s 2015 book Lovelace & Babbage, she mentions research she uncovered that shows Babbage speaking highly of Lovelace’s contributions. Since your book was published, have you run across any additional information about Ada or her work? (If yes, please share!)
Yes, in Sydney’s marvelous book there is some really great new information about Babbage and Ada that I didn’t know about when I wrote my book about Ada, but wish I had. For example, see pages 268 and 269 of the hardback of Sydney’s book, and pages 272 and 273. I am planning a new biography of Charles Babbage entitled Machines of the Mind, and this will of course include new information about Babbage and Ada.
Q: Time machine question: if you could go back and personally ask her one question, what would you ask?
‘Will you please step back into the time machine with me and let me show you the information technology world of the second decade of the twenty-first century?’
Q: Are there any modern-day characters that you think of as carrying out Ada’s vision of “poetical science”?
Sydney Padua in her marvelous illustrations of Ada and Babbage.
Angela Quarles in her brilliant novel Must Love Breeches, which I am representing in the UK through my agency under the title: Must Love Quadrilles. Ada is a major character in this novel.
Q: The world of software engineering today seems fairly male-dominated (though the ratios do seem to be improving in some quarters). What advice do you imagine Ada giving anyone seeking a more equitable balance?
‘As my own life showed, we women may well be better than men at understanding what people most want from technology, so women shouldn’t stint themselves in their ambitions in getting involved in the world of information technology.’
Q: I think there’s definitely a shortage of Ada Lovelace-related fiction. Any advice for folks putting Ada in stories? (And will she ever catch up with Tesla?)
I agree that there is a shortage of Ada-related fiction.
My advice is, if you are planning to put Ada into a novel, aim to get your timings right so that she is the right age in the time period you choose, and that her geographical location is what it could plausibly have been. Even with those two strictures, there is plenty of room for fictionalisation, as there are many gaps in what is known about Ada. But I would advise that you keep your depiction of Ada reasonably plausible according to what is definitely known about her according to historical sources. That way, she remains Ada, rather than a completely fictitious character to whom you’ve given her name.
Q: What’s your next project, if you can say so?
I want to do some rewriting and editing of Cantia, and I want to finish The Ada Lovelace Project. I also want to write Machines of the Mind. I have found a publisher in the US who will be publishing it, but I had better not say which publisher yet as the announcement is not yet official. I have so far written some sample material and a detailed proposal.
Q: Anything else you’d like to mention?
There may well be a Hollywood movie about Ada in the next couple of years. I can’t say anything more about this at this stage, but when I know what is definitely happening, I will let you know.
Here’s the link again to James’s book Ada’s Algorithm. Check it out.