The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

Richard Babbage (1791-1871) is a polymath, best remembered for his construction of a mechanical analytical engine, which is considered to be the mechanical precursor of the general purpose computer. It had an arithmetic logic unit and the computational flow could be controlled with conditional jumps and loops, there was built-in storage, and input and output was operated by punched cards. Previously he designed a difference engine that could evaluate polynomials based on the idea of finite differences. However these machines were so gigantic and massive that it never got constructed during his lifespan. This was partly due to a lack of funding and Babbage quarreling with the engineers and funding instances.

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) was the daughter of Lord Byron, but her parents separated a month after she was born. Because of her mother's resentment towards Ada's father and poetry in general, she raised Ada pushing her away from poetry emphasising mathematics and technique instead. After her marriage Ada became Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. She corresponded with Babbage and she wrote a program for the analytical engine to compute the Bernoulli numbers. She is therefore considered to be the first (virtual) computer programmer.

Sydney Padua is a graphical artist. When she was asked to do something for the Ada Lovelace Festival, which is an annual event celebrating women in computing and technology, she did some research on Ada Lovelace, and hence came across Babbage. She thought their story was so extraordinary, that she really did some thorough research on the correspondence between Babbage and Lovelace and uses this as the raw material to recreate them as characters in a graphical novel. Originally it was a webcomic. It has also been adapted as a stage play in 2013, and it is now published as a book.

The book consists mainly of graphics, but there are many footnotes and even complete pages of text that tell the true story and/or refer to the source of the story that is told in the graphics. However the plot of the graphical novel is that it plays in a pocket universe, one of many possible universes, one in which the engine is actually built. It is literally a steampunk story. The machine is so big that the characters, but most often Ada, are roaming inside the machine. Ada is the one who has to charge the mechanical bowels to fix something that goes wrong.

There is some chronology in the story, but it is essentially a sequence of episodes or tableaux in which several known events and historical characters that most probably did actually interfere with Babbage and/or Ada, even though there is definitely some fantasy and certainly humor used in the graphics. Some examples.

After introducing the main characters, like I did in the first two paragraphs of this review, Padua introduces the pocket universe.
A first character is the poet S.T. Coleridge. In his preface to the poem Kubla Khan he writes that he was interrupted while writing the poem by a person from Porlock. Padua pretends this person was Ada Lovelace.
Then Babbage and Lovelace meet Queen Victoria, who wants their difference engine to be used to fight crime, while Babbage and Lovelace from their side try to get funding for their machine. The Queen 'speaks' in an old English font and she does say "We are not amused" also in this pocket universe.
Next it is the Duke of Wellington who solicits the two heros to fight the financial crisis. Babbage wrote indeed a book On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures. They build a locomotion steam machine model, but it runs wild and explodes after causing a lot of damage, just like mathematical models used in an inappropriate way did to the financial market.
Walks in Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a nineteenth century prolific engineer, a good friend of Babbage, and also his story is briefly told. He certainly contributed to the Industrial Revolution. Because of automatization machines replaced the weavers, and there was a rebellion of the Luddites (here presented as (human) computers attacking the difference engine).
In a somewhat longer episode Mary Ann Evans aka George Eliot also passes into the pocket universe. She gets lost in the engine and her manuscript is 'eaten' by the machine and 'digitized' in a destructive way in an attempt to do spell checking.
Who else is passing by? Lovelace's instructor was Auguste De Morgan, a mathematician and logician, but it is George Boole who constructed the logic of Boolean algebra, who makes his appearance. Of course Boolean algebra is tremendously important for (binary) digital computers.
William Hamilton is another mathematician who introduced the quaternions, a four-dimensional mathematical construct that can be used to describe rotation in a three-dimensional space. Since the story here consists of graphics, hence is two-dimensional, here Hamilton introduces the hard-to-imagine third dimension for the two heros who live in their two dimensional pocket universe. This is a pun reference to Padua's website where the goggles are needed because she presents "dangerous experiments in comics".
Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll injects more imaginary into the story, and hence he is a good pretext to talk about complex numbers. The graphics in this episode refer to some elements of Alice in Wonderland. Ada even escapes the pocket universe passing through a 'looking glass' and meets another Don Quichote-like Babbage at the other side who is her enemy instead of her friend, something that has been suggested by some historians. Anyway, across the mirror the analytical engine is never built.

In an appendix, Padua has added some of her favorite sources she has used to document the plot. In another appendix she explains Babbage's design of the analytical engine. Although still in comic style, it is a pretty good description of the machine.

It is an amazing out-of-this-world story about two historic persons and the never-built first computer (actually a working specimen of a version of the difference engine was built by the London Science Museum in 1991, but the analytical engine has never been constructed so far). The long subtitle of the book describes it accurately as "The (mostly) true story of the first computer with celebrated and distinguished characters, instructive and amusing scenes; as performed within and without the remarkable difference engine. Embellished with portraits and scientific diagrams. The performance to conclude with a lively farce."

Adhemar Bultheel
Book details

This is a graphical novel about Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. Babbage designed the first mechanical computer, the difference engine and later the analytical engine, which was never built during his lifespan. Ada Lovelace was virtually the first computer programmer for that engine. Based on true historical facts, the couple live through all kinds of adventures in a fictitious parallel universe where this analytical engine was actually built and operative and where they meet other historical characters.

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9780141981512 (hbk)