Dreaming in Code:
Ada Byron Lovelace, Computer Pioneer

Emily Arnold McCully’s hugely enjoyable biography of Ada Byron Lovelace reveals how she overcame 19th-century societal norms and a highly dysfunctional family to set the information age in motion.

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★ The Bulletin for the Center for Children’s Books

STEM education has spurred curricular interest in Ada Byron Lovelace, and much of it has recently emerged in picture-book format. Here McCully offers middle-schoolers a biography at once more nuanced about Lovelace’s enduring contribution to computer development and vastly more involving about the domestic dramas that marked her life with her controlling mother, her supportive but ultimately unloved husband, and her largely ignored children. There’s no overt attempt at melodrama, but the convincing characterization of Lady Byron (who fashioned “a career out of having suffered at Lord Byron’s hands, while at the same time basking in the aura of his fame”), Ada’s admission that she’d fallen out of love with William Lovelace and didn’t really like children and her laudanum-induced erratic behavior make her a heroine worthy of fiction. Likewise, McCully is precise in her evaluation of Lovelace’s technological contributions: “Her idea that the engine could do more than compute, that numbers were symbols and could represent other concepts, is what makes Babbage’s engine a proto-computer.” The eminently readable text moves swiftly, and portrait reproductions included throughout underscore the polished society in which nineteenth-century sciences flourished. End matter includes a summary of Lovelace’s notes to the publication of Babbage’s signature work, notes, bibliography, glossary, and index, as well as an 1878 document explaining why a scientific society would withhold their financial support of Babbage’s invention – and thereby relegate Ada Lovelace to footnotes for the next century. EB

★ Shelf Awareness for Readers

Two centuries before computers became ubiquitous, a brilliant young British woman named Ada Lovelace imagined an “engine” that could process information much like today’s computers do. The life of this forward-thinking scientist is brought to light for young readers in Emily Arnold McCully’s fascinating biography Dreaming in Code. Dreaming in Code progresses chronologically from Lovelace’s birth in late 1815 (to a domineering mother and poet Lord Byron, the “titled, handsome, reckless, and irresistible” father whom she never knew) to her painful death from cancer in 1852. Although her controlling mother stinted on emotional nurturing, she did give Lovelace a far more rigorous education than most girls of her time were allowed. As a young adult, Lovelace cultivated mentors, one of whom was Charles Babbage, a quirky inventor, scientist and mathematician whom she met when she was 17 and he was 41. During their two-decades-long collaborative friendship, Babbage was developing and modifying engines designed to replace mental labor. Lovelace understood the workings of these machines in a way no one else did, even Babbage himself.McCully is the Caldecott Medal-winning author/illustrator of Mirette on the High Wire as well as dozens of other children’s books, such as Clara. Dreaming in Code is written with grace and intelligence, researched with care and peppered with historic photos and remarkable illustrations of 19th-century technology. It’s sure to inspire a new generation of pioneers unwilling to let obstacles distract them from leading the way into the future. –Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor Discover: This hugely enjoyable YA biography of Ada Byron Lovelace shows how she overcame 19th-century societal norms and a dysfunctional family to set the information age in motion.

★ School Library Journal

Lovelace (1815-1852), daughter of poet Lord Bryon, was raised in privilege by her mother, married into an aristocratic, titled family, and received an outstanding education for a woman in the 19th-century. Always inquisitive and showing qualities of genius, Ada had the best tutors in mathematics and science. She met many important men of science, including inventor Charles Babbage. They worked together and produced concepts that presage computer programming. These concepts, as well as Babbage’s design of an analytical engine, were forerunners of today’s computers. Ada’s restless spirit, addiction to gambling, use of narcotics, and poor health plagued her in the last years of her life. She was never able to overcome the prejudice against women in science. For example, she wasn’t allowed to enter the building of the Royal Society nor borrow books from its library. This book is divided into five parts that chronicle Ada’s life. In addition to the strong supporting back matter, the use of citations is an outstanding feature of this volume. VERDICT An exceptional biography and an important addition for all STEM collections.–Patricia Ann Owens, formerly at Illinois Eastern Community College, Mt. Carmel

Horn Book

Born during the Industrial Revolution, Ada Byron Lovelace endured a childhood apart from her estranged poet father, Lord Byron, and controlled by a mother who possessed scant ability to nurture her daughter. Consequently, Lovelace’s childhood was one of neglect and cruelty, albeit one marked by strong educational opportunities. Lovelace followed the conventions of the times by marrying and bearing children, two roles she was ill-equipped to handle. Still, because her husband adored her, she was able to pursue her scientific interests and maintain a friendship with Charles Babbage, who began production on a mechanical tabulation machine. When asked to translate an article stating what this (unfinished) invention could do, Lovelace imagined its possibilities beyond numeric computation. In so doing, she defined the machine as a computer prototype, and her resulting algorithm is often considered the first computer program. McCully clearly and systematically outlines the mathematical concepts behind Babbage’s machine and the steps Lovelace took to reach her conclusions, as well as her famous statement of limitations: a machine can only do what it is told to do. McCully paints Lovelace’s life as one revealing spurts of brilliance but also defined by a domineering mother; strange maladies; indifference toward her children and husband; a fascination with gambling (and resultant financial ruin); and a possible addiction to laudanum. Readers see a complex woman trapped by history, deserving both sympathy and admiration. Archival illustrations and photographs appear throughout; a wealth of back matter includes an epilogue, source notes, a bibliography, an index, and a mathematical glossary.— betty carter


A biography of Ada Lovelace, widely celebrated as the first computer programmer. McCully juxtaposes the analytcal genius of her subject with her humanizing flaws and personality, paintng a portrait of a turbulent soul and a visionary intellect whose promise was cut short by early death. AKer the acrimonious end of Lord and Lady Byron’s relatonship, the intelligent Lady Byron sought to distance Ada from both her father himself and his unstable tendencies by giving her a challenging educaton focused on ratonal pursuits, math, and science. Lady Byron’s portrayal is complex—she’s cold and self- centered but determined to provide academic opportunites for her daughter. The book follows Ada’s educaton with her marriage and death from uterine cancer, but both the book and Ada focus on her collaborator, Charles Babbage. A temporary textual shiK to focus on Babbage provides necessary context, establishing how advanced and revolutonary Babbage’s Difference Engine and Analytcal Engine designs were. And yet, Ada was able to see far beyond his visions, conceptualizing the potental of modern computers and predictng such programming techniques like loops. McCully demonstrates that although Ada had the potental to achieve more, she was hampered by sexism, ill health, and a temperament akin to her father’s. Appendices summarize Lovelace’s notes on the Analytcal Engine and present the Britsh Associaton for the Advancement of Science’s ratonale for refusing to support its constructon. A sophistcated yet accessible piece that humanizes a tragic, brilliant dreamer. (source notes, glossary, bibliography, index [not seen]) (Biography. 10-14)


Interest in Ada Byron Lovelace and other female pioneers of science has soared of late. This young adult biography is a particularly exemplary example of the burgeoning genre and should find a home in all libraries. Caldecott medalist McCully is careful to show Lovelace as a complex, and sometimes troubled, child, teen, and woman whose love of math was as passionate as love of poetry was to her famous father, the Romantic poet Lord Byron. While Lovelace’s mother, a controlling figure who reviled Lord Byron, was rather distant, she did cultivate her daughter’s intellect. She also introduced Lovelace to Charles Babbage, a well-known figure in England who was developing a protocomputer called the Analytical Engine. It was Lovelace who foresaw its implications and who ultimately wrote “code” for its use. While her life was tragically short, she is now generally acknowledged as “the first computer programmer.” McCully’s work is imminently readable, with short chapters and lavish illustrations. It also includes meaty appendixes and source notes for teen scholars. A worthy addition to biography bookshelves. — Karen Cruze

“Everyone who uses computers should know about Ada Lovelace. This lively biography is a great place to learn the story.” — Steve Sheinkin, three-time National Book Award finalist

“Meticulous research combined with elegant prose introduces young readers to this important piece of hidden history.” — Doreen Rappaport, award-winning author of multiple biographies for young readers

“A masterful depiction of science as it was conducted some two hundred years ago.” –Harriet Reisen, author of Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women

“Combining vivid narrative with impeccable research, Emily Arnold McCully not only gives readers a fresh and captivating live story, but also returns Ada Lovelace to her rightful place in history. I loved it!”— Candace Fleming, author of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award winners The Family Romanov and The Lincolns