Reluctant cartoonist Sydney Padua tips us off early in The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer that her graphic novel/history book is probably neither. Instead, she says, it is what she imagines a comic called The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer would look like if it existed, which, for the record, it does. This fuzziness with obvious facts such as authorship and the words one is reading on a page are what give the document that bears Padua’s name one of its many irresistible charms. For Padua, the actual story of the relationship between Lord Bryon’s only legitimate daughter, Ada Lovelace, whose facility with numbers rivaled her father’s gift for words, and Charles Babbage, whose 1837 Analytical Engine is considered the world’s first computer, is only a sturdy armature for several richly illustrated what-might-have-been yarns—embellishments, I hasten to add, that only someone with a love for the truth could have conjured.
For example, we “learn” that on June 5, 1833, while still a teenager, Lovelace met the older Babbage at one of the famous parties he liked to give at his mansion on 1 Dorset Street in London. Now, I’m not sure how much of that last sentence is 100 percent true, but we do know they met, and that Lovelace did eventually translate an 1840 lecture Babbage gave in Turin about his Analytical Engine from its Italian transcription to English, adding copious footnotes of her own that sketched out the if-then statements and other forms of rudimentary programming one would need to know to drive Babbage’s machine, which was never built except in model form.
Later in the book, Lovelace and Babbage demonstrate another of Babbage’s inventions, a mechanical calculator (steam-powered in Padua’s imagination) known as a difference engine, for Queen Victoria. We also encounter a spurious Babbage machine called the New Patent Mechanical Writer, lifted from an 1844, tongue-in-cheek letter he wrote to Punch—in Padua’s book, this imaginary device has its way with a George Eliot novel. Then, after a chapter in which Ada struggles to get her arms around the concept of imaginary quantities, which sends her spiraling into an Alice-in-Wonderland world of judgmental footnotes and juries of Jacquard-loom punch cards, several appendices explain, among other things, how those punch cards work, and how they led to the 80-column IBM punch cards of 1955. In a word, all this makes for fantastic reading, and that is the truth. – Ben Marks
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer
by Sydney Padua
2015, 230 pages, 7.3 x 10.3 x 1.1 inches
$15 Buy one on Amazon