Thrilling footnotes in Science History: Lovelace and Babbage illustrated

Sydney Padua wrote and drew the graphic novel / graphic documentary book The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (see also here).

I hope these types of wonderful books will never be replaced by ebooks. Sydney Padua wrote a beautiful graphical novel or documentary (it’s actually a new type of book) about Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace Byron, the world’s first inventor respectively programmer of the computer.
Padua is an illustrator and documentalist, and has created a piece of art with this comic style documentary.

The stories in the book come in a rough lively graphical style, and are followed by detailed scientific/comical style notes, even by notes to the notes.

Ada Lovelace (née Byron), daughter of the ‘mad poet’ Byron, was forbidden to be
involved with poetry in her youth, to prevent being influenced by the same dangerous poetic infection her father suffered from. Instead she was raised by a mathematics teacher, De Morgan.

Lovelace and Babbage, working together during Ada’s life (she died young of cancer), were the first to recognize
that such a calculating machine might be generalized into a general computer, which might be used for other application than just calculating numbers.

Babbage is the typical socially inapt scientist, is massively stubborn and has no problem shouting at government officials, including pre minister Peel. Strangely he had very few rows with Ada, and notably one when Lady Lovelace refused to include unpleasant remarks from Babbage aimed at the British government about the way they treat his Difference Engine.

In a way they are the opposite of the other founding father of today’s computer, Alan Turing. Where Lovelace and especially Babbage spent a lot of their time on the engineering challenges of building their computer (and Padua in the appendix elaborates on these challenges) Alan Turing totally disregarded the engineering intricacies of building a computer and created a completely abstract ‘platonic’ computer.

Nevertheless both computer scientists avant la lettre had an intricate relationship with the high society of these days. We mentioned government contacts like pre minister Robert Peel, but the list is much longer and includes Mary Evans aka George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Michael Faraday, and even Queen Victoria.

Padua subtly describes how Ada Lovelace could not escape the spell of her father’s inheritance; she suffers from a bipolar disorder, uses drugs (opium and cannabis) and gambling.

Babbage and Lovelace’s interest are very broad and oftentimes far ahead of their time. They include research into a Universal Language, thoughts about an Automatic Novelist generating books, coding and cryptography theory (see also The Information), mathematics and poetry, 4 dimensional space, imaginary numbers, …

In the Appendix Padua elaborates on the complexity of the Analytical Engine that Babbage and Lovelace had in mind, and especially the mechanical challenges of building such a machine. It simply was not possible. They were too far ahead of their time in their thinking, especially in relation to the state of engineering at that time. It would take a century before their ideas could be realized, and then only by applying the newly developed technology of electronics.

Thus, the Analytical Engine was never built, the programs from Ada were never executed, and in that respect Lovelace and Babbage remain strange footnotes in science history, but definitely very interesting ones.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.