Charles Petzold on writing books, reading books, and exercising the internal UTM

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Reading “The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage”

May 25, 2015
Roscoe, New York

Charles Babbage is easily the most annoying person in the history of computing. After conceiving a Difference Engine to compute mathematical tables and create strereotype plates for printing them, and actually getting government funding for the machine, he abandoned that project to design an Analytical Engine that would have been the first general-purpose mechanical computer. Yet, neither project was finished, largely as a result of his failure to finalize design. His eccentric and often irascible personality didn't help matters. His most extensive writings about the Analytical Engine uses it to justify the existence of biblical miracles, and his autobiography devotes a chapter to reprinting a cranky pamphlet he wrote about the evils of street music.

Almost equally annoying is Augusta Ada Gordon, later Lady Lovelace, whose position within the history of computing is based largely on a lengthy addendum to a translation of a paper concerning the Analytical Engine that seemingly contains the first authentic computer program. Yet, as a role model for women in computing, Lady Lovelace's life is seriously flawed and tarnished by addiction and gambling, perhaps as a result of mental illness that she inherited from her father, Lord Byron. She died of cancer at the age of 36.

What can we do with such people? Graphic artist and character animator Sydney Padua's solution is to turn the duo into comic characters that have been featured for years on her website 2D Goggles and now in a wonderful graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.

After an introductory chapter that presents Lady Lovelace's background and story, a pocket universe is ripped from the multiverse where Lovelace and Babbage live in a steampunk world. The Analytical Engine exists, and in a strange variant of Moore's Law, doubles in size every two years. Ada smokes a pipe and often wears dashing riding pants and boots, and Babbage sometimes even smiles. Lovelace and Babbage are directed by Queen Victoria to use the Analytical Engine to solve crime, but their actual adventures are often of a more surrealist nature.

What surprised me most was the large amount of research into Victorian science, mathematics, and literature that has gone into this book. Characters show up who these days are not widely known outside of Victorian specialists, such as Mrs. Somerville, Thomas Carlyle, and Sir William Rowan Hamilton (the inventor of quaternions). I particularly liked the episode where Ada falls asleep and becomes Alice falling through a looking-glass into an odd mathematical world. It was also quite fun seeing George Eliot scrambling through the internals of the Analytical Engine chasing the manuscript of a novel that the machine has grabbed for mechanical literary analysis. ("It looks like you are writing a novel! Would you like help?" a human Victorian version of Clippy asks, and at one point George Eliot confesses that "I'm in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike!")

To help us stay afloat — and perhaps inspired by the nature of Ada's contribution to the history of computing — Sydney Padua has supplied two levels of footnotes: shorter ones at the bottom of many pages, and longer ones at the end of the chapters. She admits to spending a lot of time with Google Books searching 19th century periodicals for mentions of her heroes, and she's turned up several treasures of her research that she presents in an appendix. A second appendix contains her rendition of the major components of the Analytical Engine, which is something that apparently noone else has thought to do before.

Despite the high levels of research and erudition, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage manages to maintain a light, humorous tone, with sly jokes and bad puns. I am reluctant to use the word "silly" but the author has given me permission: On page 157 she shows up as one of the subjects of George Eliot's famous article on "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" and confesses in a footnote that "although I'm debatedly a lady, my novel is beyond all debate extremely silly."

So there. The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is learned, clever, funny, and above all very silly in the best sense of the word.

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