1 February, 2016Issue 30.1Science

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A Very Educated Thrill

Kanta Dihal

thrilling adventures

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer
Sydney Padua
Particular Books, 2015
320 pages
ISBN: 9780307908278






She became a champion of women in computing without ever having seen a computer. He has been considered the father of the computer a century before the first computer was switched on. Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, the makers of “imaginary programs for an imaginary computer,” as animator, artist and comic author Sydney Padua describes their undertakings, are such an unlikely duo that only steampunk fiction can do credit to them. Padua’s graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, conveniently published in the year of the bicentenary of Ada Lovelace’s birth, combines steampunk and scholarly research into an original, funny, and surprisingly educational historical treatment of these two unfortunate pioneers.

Their true story is fascinating, but, as Padua shows, hardly the material to fill a 300-page graphic novel. Padua dedicates the first sixteen pages of The Thrilling Adventures to a historically accurate autobiography of Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), daughter of Lord Byron, whose mathematics-focused upbringing was intended to stifle any poetic inclinations. She met Charles Babbage (1791-1871), was fascinated by his mechanical inventions, and translated an Italian paper on his ideas for a computing machine, adding enormous footnotes in which several foundational ideas for computer programming can be distinguished. Unfortunately, the real story ends there. Ada Lovelace died of uterine cancer at the age of thirty-six after a gruelling sickbed. Babbage’s Difference Engine and its successor, the Analytical Engine, a room-sized, steam-powered, cog-operated enterprise, were never built, as he could not secure any funding.


Lovelace and Babbage’s story, full of promise but with such an anticlimactic ending, lends itself eminently to the question, what if? It is a question that has been addressed before: William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990) first explored how the world would have developed if Lovelace and Babbage had been able to get the computer off the ground. Padua’s approach, on the other hand, is unique for its insistence on maintaining a connection to the original sources that informed the storyline.

Padua originally jokingly asked the ‘What if?’ question at the end of a brief comic for her website 2D Goggles about the real life of Ada Lovelace, but her fans were keen to see this further explored. Padua therefore set the sequels to this brief comic in a separate ‘pocket universe’ in which she is free to guess at the implications the development of the Analytical Engine would have had. In a barrage of adventures, Lovelace and Babbage secure funding from the young Queen Victoria by printing a cat picture for her, prevent economic collapse, create a spelling checker for Victorian novels, and fight crime (the crimes being poetry and street music, their respective peeves).

Whereas Babbage is the sort of famous character about whom a deluge of hilarious anecdotes has been preserved, Ada Lovelace finds herself in an elusive Goldilocks zone. We don’t know too much about her, which would ruin the magic by giving conclusive evidence, nor too little, which would not allow us to write a story about her, but just enough: there is precisely that amount of knowledge available that allows historians to construe many different narratives, nearly all contradictory. Amidst this tangle of different interpretations, we find that The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is not even particularly odd or far-fetched.

On the contrary: The Thrilling Adventures may well be one of the most well-researched and scholarly graphic novels ever written, after Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which is an academic work on comics written in its own genre. Marketed on Padua’s website as “a cornucopia of comics and a feast of footnotes”, the reader is led to enjoy the archival research that went into compiling The Thrilling Adventures as much as the comics themselves. In fact, this “feast of footnotes” is a multi-layered cake: there are footnotes at the bottom of nearly every page, and each chapter is followed by several pages of illustrated endnotes – which at times come with their own footnotes. Where annotating a novel can already lead to the issue of distracting the reader, footnoting a comic comes with its own further challenges: where does one place the asterisk if the image rather than the text triggers the footnote? Yet Padua nearly always succeeds in carrying over the storyline, as her characters contradict, walk over, drive a train into, or argue with the footnotes.

The ambiguous status of Lovelace’s history has necessarily forced Padua to choose which historical sources about Lovelace to follow; as the form of the book makes clear, she chose the interpretation of Lovelace the mathematical genius and programmer over the interpretation of Lovelace the over-hyped mentally unstable woman. Padua goes to great lengths explaining the context of this debate in the final chapter, which is a parody of Alice in Wonderland. In a wonderful play with footnotes, Padua addresses the “asterisk that hovers over her status as the first computer programmer,” jokingly referring to the many different scholarly interpretations of Lovelace’s relation to Babbage, his computer, and her computer programmes. The asterisk of the footnote rises through the gutters and steps into the panel, challenging Lovelace in a trial that harks back to Alice’s trial by the King of Hearts. Ada gets angry at the footnote, accusing it of “cowardly hedging”. Padua defends herself, yet leaves the question open, deferring to scholarly authority:

You may be looking to the objective authority of the footnote to reveal the actual capital-T Truth about Ada Lovelace now. But I’m not a mathematician, or even a scholar, even though I AM a footnote! For a humble annotation (never mind an even humbler cartoonist) to wade into this tangle seems to be getting, as it were, above myself.

Her words may be taken for false modesty, as Padua has clearly proven precisely how extensive her knowledge about Lovelace, Babbage, and their work is: in December 2015, the British Society for the History of Mathematics awarded her the Neumann Prize for the best popular work dealing with the history of mathematics. Even so, this passage is an engaging introduction to the scholarly debates surrounding Lovelace, presented from the point of view of someone who would certainly be considered an outsider in traditional academic circles.

Padua’s black-and-white line drawings are cartoonish and flippant where the storyline is humorous, and detailed and imposing in the serious passages, yet her style is consistent in spite of the many registers she combines in the comic. Her most impressive drawings are the monumental two-page spreads which convey the sheer immensity and complexity of the Analytical Engine as Babbage had envisaged it. Her drawings of the insides of Babbage’s engine, which grows to the size of a building in this alternative history, are overwhelming in the scope she conveys and the detail she has put into constructing this overview. Her drawings of both people and mechanics are cartoonish and stylised rather than naturalistic, yet even so they are extremely accurate. The work contains an uncountable number of individually drawn cogs. Her drawings are detailed enough to convey an accurate sense of the technicalities of the Analytical Engine, an aspect which comes to the fore most clearly in the appendix she dedicates to the construction and functioning of the Engine.

As with the footnotes, the appendices must be taken into account for a full appreciation of the depth of Padua’s research. Putting together fragmented illustrations and technical diagrams, she presents a visualisation of the Analytical Engine which is more revolutionary than she had intended: “I was hoping to crib shamelessly from some previously existing visualisation… so naturally I was highly disconcerted when I found that no one had ever done one.” More than twenty pages are dedicated to an explanation of the functioning of this engine and an introduction to computer logic – and that does not even cover half of the fifty-page appendix. Equally impressive is her treatment of Victorian England, as her work becomes an engaging Who’s Who that is just anachronistic enough to include all the notables who ever encountered Charles Babbage: Isambard Kingdom Brunel gets an illustrated endnote that spreads over two pages and summarizes him quite adequately as the “builder of the biggest, longest, most audacious thing in almost every engineering category”, and George Eliot has her own adventure as the Analytical Engine devours her book to spell-check it.

Illustration of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is unique in its combination of immensely thorough research in both history and computer science, excellent storytelling, and talented drawing. Popularisations of science and history come in many forms, but the graphic novel is not yet a common one in either. The “Introducing” graphic guides by Icon Books may come closest, yet those are not ‘graphic novels’: their graphics are subordinate to the explanation of the scholarly concept. The Thrilling Adventures, however, is a popularisation in which the fictional storyline is as important as the contextual information. Rather than making the images mere illustrations, subservient to the text, Sydney Padua presents an engaging, amusing and well-drawn narrative that is educational precisely because it is enjoyable down to the smallest footnote.

Kanta Dihal is a second-year DPhil candidate in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is Editor-in-Chief of The Oxonian Review.