Published on August 31st, 2015 | by Carli Spina
Review: The Thrilling Adventure of Lovelace and Babbage
Author: Sydney Padua
For at least a certain subset of history and/or technology enthusiasts, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace are legendary. Charles Babbage was a professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge in the early 1800’s, while also writing about philosophy and working as a mechanical engineer. While any of these achievements would be impressive, now he is best known for his work on both the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine. Though he did not complete working versions of either of these machines, they served as the origin point for the idea of the programmable computer. Ada Lovelace was the daughter of the Romantic poet Lord Byron and her mother specifically had her trained in mathematics in an attempt to prevent her from becoming a poet like her father. This training paid off and she became a mathematician who collaborated with Babbage. Lovelace is sometimes referred to as the first computer programmer because of her own work writing the first program that would have run on the Analytical Engine.
This little piece of history is endlessly fascinating to many and has served as fertile ground for many authors, but few if any have handled it in the way that Sydney Padua has. In her comic, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer, Padua reimagines these great minds in a “pocket universe” where they not only continued their work together through to the completion of the Analytical Engine, but then also decided to use their creation to “fight crime.” This pocket universe is populated with many historical figures, from Queen Victoria to Karl Marx to the Duke of Wellington’s horse, and the “crimes” they encounter range from fighting collapsing economies to typographical errors in books. Padua represents all of these characters in a cartoon style that manages to convey the central whimsy of the entire comic while retaining actual features from history.
Even more impressive than her representation of this cast of characters is the way that she draws the machinery that populates their world. Padua frequently opts to refer to the machine in the story as the Difference Engine, because, as Padua puts it, the Analytical Engine “just doesn’t have the same ring.” But, regardless of what it is called, the machine is so fully realized and integral to the stories that it becomes another character in the comic. In the story “User Experience,” readers follow George Eliot as she gets lost in the inner workings of the machine, where she encounters all manner of strange occurrences and an over abundance of cats. While this won’t necessarily leave readers clear on how the machine works, it does underscore the complexity of the work that Babbage and Lovelace did during their lifetimes.
Each of the stories in the book is unique, but all of them share a strong connection to the actual history of the period, not only in their overarching themes, but also in the small asides and the specific pieces of dialogue attributed to the characters. Frequently, this dialogue is taken directly from primary materials, lending it not only a sense of authenticity, but also allowing readers to learn more about the real people behind these exaggerated characters. Padua makes extensive use of both footnotes and endnotes to explain where the quotations come from and the historical context that she used as the basis of each of these stories.
Padua manages to create the perfect blend of humor, history, and steampunk machinery. This book will leave you wanting to read more of Lovelace and Babbage’s thrilling adventures, but it will also make you want to delve into the history of this period. Padua offers a good starting point for readers who are interested in looking into these figures more both through her extensive use of footnotes and through the inclusion of primary documents in the first appendix of the book. She also includes an impressive depiction of the Analytical Engine as the second appendix of the book, which is a great resource for those who are interested in understanding the machinery better after reading how they work in Padua’s pocket universe.
If this has you intrigued, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer is currently available both in hardcover and as an ebook. I highly recommend adding it to your library’s comic collection. Though its footnotes may be slightly off-putting to some readers, I think that this will appeal to history fans as well as lovers of traditional-style comic books. You can also see an additional story about Lovelace and Babbage, as well as more about Sydney Padua’s work on her website and, if you want to learn more about Sydney Padua’s work on the comic, check out my interview with her over on The Mary Sue.