teaching machines

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

This is my third post in a series of reviews on technology-related graphic novels. I had hoped to participate in a special session on such novels at SIGCSE 2017, but the the special session was not accepted by the reviewers. *sniff*

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is subtitled “the (mostly) true story of the first computer.” Author-artist Sydney Padua has fallen in love with these two characters from Victorian England, and her exaggerated retelling of their efforts to build the world’s first mechanical computer is probably a lot more thrilling than the adventures themselves, which were fraught with failure and rejection.

Spoilers follow.

Synopsis

As with any comic book superhero, we start with the origin of Lady Ada Byron. Her drifter of a father was poet Lord Byron, but he skipped town a month after Ada’s birth, never to return. In retaliation, her mother channeled Ada into a program of anti-poeticism, providing her a strict education in mathematics and the sciences. At 17 years of age, Ada attends a party and meets Charles Babbage, a loud-spoken thinkerer-tinkerer who was 24 years her senior. She immediately falls in love—with his difference engine, a machine that can apparently compute powers and solve quadratic equations.

Soon after, Ada enters into an uninspired marriage with a man named King, because that’s the thing to do, and they have a few children. Consistent with society’s long, confused picture of womanhood and motherhood, the children seem to disappear from the rest of the story, presumably to be raised by people that are not her parents.

Meanwhile, Ada enters into partnership with Babbage, translating into English a paper on the Analytical Engine written by a future Italian prime minister. Writing original papers was not something that women did at that time. Babbage himself apparently did not hold to this norm, as he writes in his autobiography, “The late Countess of Lovelace informed me that she had translated the memoir of Menabrea. I asked why she had not herself written an original paper on a subject with which she was intimately acquainted? To this Lady Lovelace replied that the thought had not occurred to her. I then suggested that she should add some notes to Menabrea’s memoir; an idea which was immediately adopted.” These notes ended up being 2.5 times as long as the translation!

Babbage had a love-hate relationship with the British government, which funded his work, but not to a degree that allowed him to deliver a usable machine or even usable calculations—except for a high-quality table of logarithms. The Queen visits Babbage and asks, “Pray, Mr. Babbage—if you put the wrong numbers in, does the right answer come out?” Just this week I was reading a paper that classified the Queen’s supposition that a computer can gloss over the programmer’s mistakes and still execute the desired computation as an intentionality bug. Lady Ada had a clearer head, writing, “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform.”

At this point, the reader is deposited into a parallel universe, where Lovelace and Babbage actually complete their mechanical computer. We go on to see Lovelace and Babbage in a series of vignettes, with the Analytical Engine being used to spellcheck a new novel, to scratch Ada’s itch for betting on horses, to save the world from financial crises, and to explore imaginary numbers. We meet many of the important scientific thinkers of the time, some of whom really did have contact with the two inventors, but others of whom the author has cleverly interwoven more appropriately than history itself did. In our universe, sadly, the Analytical Engine was never fully realized.

Themes

Some of Babbage’s words summarize the technological revolution which he helped advance: “In mathematical science, it happens that truths which are at one period the most abstract, and apparently the most remote from all useful application, become in the next age the bases of profound physical inquiries, and in the succeeding one, perhaps, by proper simplification and reduction to tables, furnish their ready and daily aid to the artist and the sailor.” His and Lovelace’s efforts to build the Analytical Engine were scorned by many who saw it either as useless or, ironically, too useful, displacing too much human labor. Few can deny that computation has become the commodity that Babbage predicted and the foundation upon which modern society is built.

The size of Lovelace and Babbage’s machine is greatly exaggerated in this book. It’s so cavernous that it has catwalks, and a leopard hides in its recesses! Ada is seen many times in its belly, donned in the gear of an HVAC technician. The real machine machine was not so big physically, but to the brains of Lovelace and Babbage and to any computer scientist, it certainly must have been.

Lovelace is heralded as the first example of a woman in computer science. Her suppressed poeticism bubbled up to see computers’ someday use in generating music. Her concern for presentation and exposition gave Babbage’s work more legitimacy than it would have had otherwise. Sadly, Lady Ada died of uterine cancer at the age of 36. Padua tells the account of what might have been for Ada, but her imaginative storytelling also predicts what might be for each of us, male or female.

Conclusion

Though not really related to the story itself, have you ever wondered what the writing process is like? Like how much time an author spends writing a paragraph, or what hidden logic is driving the author through the endless series of choices that is the writing process? Padua knocks down that fourth wall in this book. She’s a glass-bottom boat, taking us on a tour through the lives of this unlikely duo and all the while annotating her every art and word decision in a footnote.

This book teeters between fact and fiction so much that I could probably not assign it by itself in any of my classes. However, paired with another book on the history of computers, Padua’s account of the thrilling adventures would provide a refreshing break from our much slower history. Her parallel universe has a much higher density of ideas than our own.

One of the most compelling ideas that Padua makes manifest is the mixed-bagness of our heroes. Neither Babbage nor Lovelace had it all together, but they plowed ahead into something new, an arena of discomfort for most us. They did not make millions, but they made history.

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