A great, not-imaginary comic about an imaginary computer: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

Gautham Shenoy May 5, 2019 4 min

History tells us that the polymath Charles Babbage had an idea for a steam-powered calculating machine, today considered the first computer design. It tells us that the mathematician Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace – or Ada Lovelace, as she is popularly known – wrote extensive annotations on Babbage’s concept for a programmable computer, today considered to be the world’s first computer program. What history finally tells us is that Charles Babbage never did finish any of his calculating machines, with none built, and died a bitter man at the age of seventy-nine, while Ada Lovelace would never write another program, dying of cancer at the young age of thirty-six, shortly after her paper was published, and the first computers only built during the 1940s.

History is bunk. What if, instead, Lovelace and Babbage were successful in building the Analytical Engine and (naturally) used it to have thrilling adventures and fight crime?

This is the premise of animator and graphic novelist Sydney Padua’s Eisner Award-nominated comic, The Thrilling Adventures of Babbage and Lovelace or to give its full title, The Thrilling Adventures of Babbage and Lovelace with Interesting & Curious Anecdotes of Celebrated and Distinguished Characters, Fully Illustrating a Variety of Instructive and Amusing Scenes; as Performed Within and Without the Remarkable Difference Engine. And of course, embellished with portraits and scientifick diagrams by Sydney Padua.

Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage meet for the first time.

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With the introductions done, and the alternative reality established in a pocket universe, in the first chapter, Padua plunges headlong into the thrilling adventures of the intrepid pair as they fight crime (‘street music’ as per Babbage, and ‘poetry’ as per Lovelace), explore mathematical realms, invent the ‘cloud’, battle economic models and declare a war on error as far as spelling mistakes go, and lots more.

Cover of the 2015 edition of The Thrilling Adventures of Babbage and Lovelace (Penguin Books).

As informative and incredibly intelligent as it is entertaining and utterly charming and whimsical, this is one comic that is bound to leave the reader much smarter at the end of its ~300 hilarious pages than when they began the book. The illustrations and dialogues are supported on almost every page with extensive footnotes, and each chapter or adventure with equally extensive endnotes that one wonders whether the footnotes came first or the illustrated panels, and which is in support of what.

Crackling with wit and sprinkled with jokes about contemporary pop culture, a highlight being the scene where Lovelace wins over Queen Victoria by showing her the picture of a kitten (in binary; but of course) and tech, including twitter and featuring a wealth of anecdotes and historical curiosities derived from primary sources, and appearances from people such as Lord Byron, Isambard Brunel, William Hamilton, Charles Dodgson and Charles Dickens just to name a few, The Thrilling Adventures of Babbage and Lovelace dives deep into history, literature, mathematics and science in the most engaging way possible.

In its pages you will – among other things – learn about the problems one could face when offered a hot beverage when one is George Boole, follow George Eliot as she gets lost inside the Analytical Engine as it spellchecks her novel, and learn the identity of the mysterious and disruptive Person from Porlock who interrupted Samuel Taylor Coleridge during the composition of ‘Kubla Khan: A Vision in a Dream’ (for, poetry is a crime!).

Artist and writer Sydney Padua, the author of The Thrilling Adventures of Babbage and Lovelace

What began as a single, short one-shot comic by Sydney Padua in a London pub in 2009 on the occasion of Ada Lovelace Day would ultimately grow to become The Thrilling Adventures of Babbage and Lovelace which was hailed as an instant classic upon its publication. It would go on to win the Neumann Prize in the History of Mathematics, the British Book Design and Production Award for Graphic Novels and be nominated for the 2016 Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album (with Padua nominated for Best Writer/Artist). Whether you’re a comics lover, a history buff, a mathematics fan or a computing nerd, The Thrilling Adventures of Babbage and Lovelace is an essential read you will find irresistible and are sure to not regret spending time with.

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