Unless you pay close attention to either women’s history or the history of computers, you’ve probably never heard of Lady Ada Lovelace. And I can almost guarantee you’ve never heard of Charles Babbage. And yet their ideas are what made the world the live in today—a world in which we carry small computers in our pockets—possible.
Charles Babbage was a nineteenth century mathematician. Actually, Wikipedia describes him as a polymath and I think that suits him quite well. He was one of those people who had fingers in many different pots. It seems, though, that what he really liked to do was solve problems, which is how he came up with the idea that would form the basis of the computer in your pocket.
As a solution to the problem of mistakes in the printed mathematical tables that were used at the time for things like navigation, engineering, and mathematics in general, Babbage developed the Difference Engine, basically a steam-powered machine designed to calculate the values of polynomial functions. From there he moved on to invent the Analytical Engine, a more complicated steam-powered machine designed to calculate all kinds of mathematical functions. It was to work using punch cards—an idea taken from the Jacquard Looms which used punch cards to encode the designs being woven into fabrics at the time—to program different mathematical calculations. Unfortunately, however, working models of his engines were not constructed during his lifetime.
Ada Lovelace was a highly trained mathematician and a correspondent and friend of Charles Babbage. She was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron. Her mother, in an attempt to rout out any poetical instincts she might have, focused Lovelace’s education on mathematics from a very early age. And while Babbage may have designed a precursor to the modern computer, Lovelace wrote its first program. In the comments on a paper she translated from its original Italian, Ada Lovelace wrote an algorithm for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers designed for Babbage’s Analytical Engine.
As far as history goes, this is where things generally stop. Babbage never built his engines—after his first attempt at building the Difference Engine failed, he had trouble getting more financing from the government—and Lovelace died of cancer at the age of 36. However, that didn’t stop Sydney Padua, an animator and visual effects artist, from imagining a more interesting and adventurous alternative history for the duo. And thank goodness.
In the introduction to the book, Ms. Padua writes that she hadn’t originally set out to draw a comic with an alternate-universe story about Lovelace and Babbage. She had done a web comic, just for fun, about the real Lovelace and Babbage, but since the ending to the real story is pretty sad, she added a little something extra. “I threw in a couple of drawings at the end, imagining for them another, better, more thrilling comic-book universe to live on in.” It had started as a joke, but the idea caught on and the more Ms. Padua researched her subjects, the more she fell in love with them and the more she felt compelled to make “an imaginary comic about an imaginary computer.”
The book starts out with a retelling of the true story of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. But then it quickly moves on to more imagined territory, sending us into a world in which the Analytical Engine is not only built, but being used to solve all sorts of problems. The duo challenge their engine to solve the country’s economic problems, and end up sending it running amok in the streets of London. The Queen of England wants to use it to fight crime. Charles Babbage declares a “War on Error” and ends up losing George Eliot’s book, which she and Lovelace must try to retrieve, given it’s her only copy.
Ms. Padua’s drawings are fantastically steam-punk-esque, which is fitting given the fact that Babbage’s machines were steam-powered. The Analytical Engine is massive and Lovelace is frequently drawn strolling through the hallways between its stacks of gears in jodhpurs with a pipe and a frown. Ms. Padua portrays Babbage as a lovable idealist and inventor, not always cognizant of the consequences of loosing his ideas on the world. Lovelace, in contrast, is the workhorse of the pair, often cleaning up after Babbage’s messes and clearly enjoying her work inside the Engine itself, adjusting gears and whatnot, keeping the Engine in tiptop shape.
What makes the book truly magical however, are Ms. Padua’s footnotes and endnotes. While her comics are solidly constructed in the realm of fantasy, her footnotes and endnotes provide the historical bases for her flights of fancy. Clearly, she did a lot of research for this book. A whole lot. What she was able to dig up is amazing and her enthusiasm and love for these two rather eccentric characters shines through her writing.
It was easy to fall in love with Lovelace and Babbage as Ms. Padua has portrayed them. I could see exactly what she meant when, in her introduction, she described Babbage as a “blend of Mr. Pickwick, Mr. Toad, Don Quixote, and Leonardo da Vinci” and how she wanted “alternately to shake [Lovelace], hug her, and throw her a parade.” Just dipping back into the book to write this review I found myself caught up once again in the stories and the characters that drive them. Long live Lovelace and Babbage!