Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day - "The Difference Engine"

Today, March 24, is Ada Lovelace Day. Who is Ada Lovelace, you say? She is generally attributed to be the first computer programmer, working with Charles Babbage on his Difference Engine and Analytical Engine (early mechanical computers) in the early 1800's. You can read more about her on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ada_lovelace. Being a computer programmer, and a woman, myself, Ada has always been something of an icon for me (along with Grace Hopper).

But this is a book blog, right? Yes! When I heard about ALD, and the effort to have bloggers worldwide recognize her, I took the opportunity to re-read a most interesting book The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. This book is one of the first 'Steampunk' books - certainly one that brought the genre into the general public realm. The Difference Engine supposes that Babbage and Lovelace's work actually became viable and spawned 'the computer age' (including hackers - or 'clackers' as they're know in the novel), though not silicon/electronic computers, but computers made with gears that run on steam (hence, "steampunk"). Ada, herself, is a character in this book, which is why I thought it would be a good book to read in honor of this day.

I don't think this book is Gibson or Sterling's best work, but it's a really interesting 'alternate history' book, and they very realistically extrapolate as to the impact computers would have on society at that time. Though, I do think, at times, the authors were trying a bit too hard to be "clever", and the story tends to wander a bit. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book, and would recommend it to anyone interested in learning about steampunk. (I don't think it's the best reference book about Ada, herself, but it is a good story, overall, and a good example of the genre.)