The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua

Reviewed by Peter Hobson

BabbagePunchycards! [1] If that word brings a smile of recognition to your lips then almost certainly you will not need to read my review any further as you probably already own a copy of this long-awaited book by animator and cartoonist Sydney Padua. Some years ago Ms Padua started putting graphical short stories on her website [2]. Catching the steampunk zeitgeist and bringing together her graphical skills and her in-depth research into two great Victorians, Charles Babbage and Lady Ada Lovelace, her site soon began to attract considerable interest [3]. This book brings to perhaps a wider audience a graphical biography of Lovelace and Babbage plus a number of short graphical stories which are not historically accurate in themselves but which contain great erudition (via a surfeit of explanatory footnotes [4]) and are pretty funny too.

The theme which links the biography and the short stories is the amazing invention, sadly never realized, of the Analytical Engine. This extraordinary mechanical monster would have been the world’s first programmable computer [5] had it ever been built, and along with its predecessor, the Difference Engine (partially realised but never completed), made Babbage and Lovelace famous (or possibly infamous given the money the UK government awarded Babbage for no obvious short term return). Nowadays Babbage is relatively widely known, but I wonder how many people realise that Ada Lovelace was an accomplished mathematician and, via her work with Babbage, might reasonably claim to be the first computer programmer? [6]. I suspect sadly she is rather better known for being the daughter of Lord Byron; in recent decades her contributions, rather than being somebody’s daughter, are more widely recognised.

In the short stories, The Pocket Universe, The Person from Porlock and Lovelace and Babbage vs the Client! are the titles of the first three, we see Padua’s playfulness come to the fore. I love the way she has skilfully woven in some very modern obsessions arising from, for example, the ubiquity of pictures of cats on the World Wide Web. When Queen Victoria, the Duke of Wellington and Copenhagen [7] come to ask our heroes how their invention might fight crime things do not go well until Lovelace finally manages to get the infernal machine to draw a picture of a kitten [8]. In another story Padua skilfully explains to the reader, via the physical destruction upon reading it into the machine of an unpublished novel by George Elliot, how information can be stored in different media and is preserved even although the physical form in which it is stored changes. Unfortunately for Elliot it is at this point that one of the many cats that inhabit the machine (to keep down the mice) has an unfortunate entanglement with the punch cards.

Would I recommend the book – you have to ask?! Is it just for historical, computing geeks? Of course not. It is well written, beautifully illustrated, erudite on a whole range of Victoriana, and extremely witty. Oh and it has cats [9]; but don’t take my word for it, have a look at the 2D Goggles website and then buy a copy for yourself.

Notes:
[1] http://sydneypadua.com/2dgoggles/punchycards/
[2] http://sydneypadua.com/2dgoggles/
[3] I wish I could remember how I came across it!
[4] Just like these ones.
[5] People still argue about this. Was it Colossus or ENIAC (or possibly the Z3)?
[6] There is a computer language named after her, see for example http://www.ada2012.org/
[7] The horse not the capital of Denmark.
[8] The first computer generated ASCII art was probably, and inevitably, that other staple of the World Wide Web, a naked woman.
[9] Do you need any more of a recommendation?

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Sydney Padua, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Particular Books: UK, 2015). 9780141981512, 317pp., hardback.

Peter Hobson is a particle physicist who works on the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment based at CERN. When he was at school he did use “punchycards” (and wrote in some ancient languages such as Algol 68) in his first attempts at mastering the 20th century version of the Analytical Engine. He has a weblog with quite a lot of steampunky pictures on it too: http://morganas-cat.tumblr.com/

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3 Comments

  1. I am reading this one now (I’m at the Wellington part) and what a fun book! It’s something I would never have picked up if it had not been for Stefanie at Somanybooksblog.com. I “ditto” your enthusiasm.

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