The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

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cover artWhen I began reading The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua, I did something I usually don’t do. I posted how great the book is and how everyone needed to, right then and there, request a copy from the library or buy one of their own. Now that I have actually finished it, I still stand by that assertion.

The book is a graphic novel like no other I have read (which is more than some and less than a good many). Sure the stories are told with great black and white drawings, some of them very detailed like the visual explanation in the appendix of how the Analytical Engine would have worked if it were ever built. Wait, appendix? A graphic novel with an appendix? Yup. And that is just one way this book is different. It also has footnotes and endnotes. In fact, the graphic part of it is almost beside the point. To be sure, the graphics tell a story, but the real action, where all the fun and humor is, is in the footnotes and endnotes. Crazy!

Padua has clearly done extensive research, she even got a scholarly slam dunk by finding a letter in an obscure archive somewhere that settled a dispute about just how much Ada Lovelace had to do with Babbage and maths and the Analytical Engine and computer programming (a lot!). Booyah! And Padua clearly enjoys her subjects as well, expressing great knowledge and affection for them and all their quirks and foibles.

Since Lovelace died when was 36 and the Analytical Engine was never built, Padua takes liberties with the story, moving the pair to a pocket universe in which Ada lives and the Engine is built. Still, she remains true to certain biographical events, even quoting them directly at times in the stories. When she veers far off course there is a handy footnote to tell us so.

I say stories because that is what these are, short stories in graphic form. So we have a story about the Person from Porlock, one in which Lovelace and Babbage meet Queen Victoria and give her a demonstration of the Analytical Engine. Except the Engine crashes, (even when computers were only theoretical there were provisions for what to do when they crashed) and Ada runs off to fix it and save the day while Babbage bores the Queen with stories about how great he is. The Queen, not understanding why the Engine is a useful thing is losing interest until Lovelace’s programming produces a picture of a cat. Heh. Cats and computers belong together apparently. We meet George Boole whose Boolean logic will be familiar to both computer geeks and librarians. And there are often hilarious run-ins with many other famous personages.

One that a good many of you will be familiar with is George Eliot. She and Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Thomas Carlyle and others are summoned for a “mandatory spell-check” of their most recent manuscripts. Lovelace really did theorize that the Analytical Engine should be able to analyze symbols as well as crunch numbers. Eliot’s manuscript gets fed into the Engine but it being her only copy she immediately changes her mind. Thus follows a long pursuit through the workings of the Engine to try and get the manuscript back. But horror of horrors, the Engine uses “destructive analysis” and the manuscript gets ripped to shreds! And then it crashes the Engine. The huge joke at the end of this is that there had been a tussle at the beginning and Eliot and Carlyle got their manuscripts mixed up and it is actually Carlyle’s manuscript on the history of the French Revolution that is destroyed. In real life Carlyle’s manuscript was indeed destroyed. He had given it to his friend John Stewart Mill to read. The only copy. Mill left it sitting out and the servants thought it was waste paper and used it for starting fires. Oops. Carlyle had to rewrite the who book, but personally, from what I have actually read about the incident in other places, it was probably for the best because the rewrite by accounts was better than the original. Still, Carlyle was devastated and I don’t remember if he and Mill continued to be friends afterwards.

Anyway, this is a right fun book. Babbage and Lovelace were real characters even before they were fictionalized in a pocket universe. If you would like a taste of the book including a few stories that didn’t make it in, there is a website! The Science Museum of London also built Babbage’s Difference Engine, the precursor to the Analytical Engine, in 1991 and because of the magic of the internet, you can watch a video demonstration:

Is that thing ever loud!

If you are looking for something fun, geeky, madcap and sometimes just plain silly, you can’t go wrong with The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.

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