The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

Reading challenge book 41: a graphic novel

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, by Sydney Padua

Amazon link here; link to abbreviated webcomics here.


Let me start by saying how much I completely adored this graphic novel. It’s witty; I enjoyed the art; the author conveys her love of the topic in every panel; and I never knew that footnotes and endnotes could be so entertaining. To put things in context, I may have uttered the words “I want to have sex with Sydney Padua’s brain”. (I know, ick, right?) But The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (or Thrilling Adventures) gets an A* from me.

So. Babbage and Lovelace lived in Victorian England. Charles Babbage read Maths at Cambridge, and although he was disappointed by the quality of teaching at undergrad ( O_o), he later became the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. He was an eminent engineer and contributed to a number of fields such as cryptography, but nowadays he’s best known as the father of modern computing. He drew up plans for the famous ‘Difference Engine’, which was designed to automatically generate series from polynomial functions, but abandoned this design before a model was ever successfully completed to begin work on his ‘Analytical Engine’, which was more complex and designed for general computing. Neither machine was ever completed.

As a side note, hubby and I visited the Computer History Museum in Mountain View a couple of years ago, and walked in partway through the demonstration of a recreation of the Difference Engine. Hubby was quite interested, but I had absolutely no idea about what was going on. I’m pretty sad that I missed out on viewing it with any degree of understanding!

Ada Lovelace was the daughter of the famous poet, Lord Byron, and from an early age had a keen interest in mathematics (which her family steered her towards in the hope of offsetting any Romantical Tendencies she might have inherited from her father). In Victorian times, women could not write and publish scientific papers; however Ada used a workaround to publish her translation of an account of one of Babbage’s presentations on his Analytical Engine; only she added many pages of footnotes (three times as many pages as the translated article), which included a computer program for the Engine.

While historical records claim that Ada Lovelace died shortly afterwards, Thrilling Adventures enlightens the reader to the existence of a Pocket Universe, in which Lovelace and Babbage lived on to build the Analytical Engine and fight crime. Which is the opening premise for the novel. (See an abridged version of this comic here).

Why select The Thrilling Adventures?

Basically, because I’m a giant nerd. I know a very little about Turing machines, and wanted to see how the Difference Engine fitted in. One of the Appendices to the novel includes an simplified illustration of how the Engine worked, and I found it fascinating.

Incidentally, I’ve also started playing a game called ‘Human Resources’, which teaches you basic assembly-programming (I think), which is super fun. But a lot of the concepts used in the game correlate to the design for the Analytical Engine. This excited me a lot!

What kind of crime do Lovelace and Babbage fight?

This is a little controversial. Queen Victoria is very keen that they Fight Crime, whereas Lovelace and Babbage originally planned to produce log tables, charts for navigators… But they compromise and prevent Financial Collapse! And Proof-Read Novels for Spelling Errors! And there is a fantabulous comic of Ada Lovelace reading about imaginary numbers and then having a dream about them a la Alice through the Looking Glass. 

You mentioned footnotes?

Yes! Typically there are 3-4 footnotes per page, giving the historical background to the panel. This may sound dry, but they add in any number of small, human details – for example, although Lovelace was steered towards mathematics by her family to keep her poetical tendencies in check, her tutors had serious concerns over whether her frail, female body could sustain the immense intellectual effort of doing advanced mathematics. (They also advised that she steered away from areas such as imaginary numbers, which could bring forth her hidden romantic nature!)

Sydney Padua did a huge amount of research on Babbage and Lovelace, and she references correspondence and other source materials. Extracts from a number of these are included in one of the Appendices. And she talks about the process of doing the research, and how excited she was when she made any significant discoveries – proper geeking out. Love it!

What else?

I loved the tongue-in-cheek nature of this webcomic. The relationship between Babbage and Lovelace is a little Wallace and Gromit-esque (Ada is positioned as Gromit, obviously), though in a loving, respectful way. There are a number of witty anachronisms (a shop-sign ‘Google’ with pairs of spectacles in the window; cat memes delighting Queen Victoria).

So you would recommend Thrilling Adventures?

Absolutely! To quote a friend, if you don’t enjoy this book, you’re a bad person and can’t be my friend. Even if you’ve read the webcomic, you should buy the book because a) it expands on the original webcomic (more detail and frames); b) you’ll enjoy re-reading it; c) you can lend it to all your friends and delight them too; and d) it would be smashing to give Sydney Padua some money because not only is she awesome, but doing so might encourage her to write a sequel.

I hope you enjoyed this unbiased summary which in no way resembled a squeefest.


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