My Thrilling Adventures Reading about Ada and Charles
Perhaps you know Ada Lovelace as the world’s first computer programmer. If so, you may also be familiar with Charles Babbage as the person who designed the first computer. However, as Sydney Padua beautifully illustrates in her graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer, what Lovelace and Babbage accomplished – separately and together – is far richer and even more noteworthy than our contemporary shorthand acclamations. Indeed, the particular form of Padua’s novel, the combination of comics and notes, enables readers to appreciate the nuances of Lovelace’s (and Babbage’s) work in a way that more traditional biographies or academic treatments may not.
Although the novel blends fact and fiction, Padua has thoroughly researched her subjects and their era. Some of her endnotes positively gleam as the jewels of her investigations, carefully polished. For example, I learned that “writers of poetry die on average six years earlier than writers of nonfiction; and writers themselves die younger than normal people by two and a half years” (47). This gem appears in the chapter “The Person from Porlock,” which bridges Ada’s circulation in the worlds of both literary and mathematical genius. Ada was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron, and one of the Lovelace estates was a short distance from Ash Farm, where the poet Samuel Coleridge wrote “Kubla Khan.” Padua weaves these details, along with Ada’s mathematical prowess and likely knowledge of probability, into a clever chapter-long joke. “The Person from Porlock” serves as a microcosm for the novel: Padua has assiduously investigated Lovelace’s and Babbage’s worlds, and although she has created an imagined universe for them, she built it upon a strong factual foundation. Here I will emphatically note that only the first chapter, “Ada Lovelace: The Secret Origin!” is nonfiction. The remaining chapters are chock full of historical research and detail, but they imagine a world in which Ada and Babbage succeeded in building and programming an analytical engine—that is, a computer.
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage brings their world to life. Padua has captured and conveyed their elite and educated social milieu, and the many people and events with whom Ada and Charles were connected. The page depicting one of Babbage’s dinner parties (19) distills the phenomenal mental firepower of their group: Charles Darwin chats with Michael Faraday while the Duke of Wellington drones on to Florence Nightingale. Readers see Alfred, Lord Tennyson watching Charles Dickens tinker with Babbage’s mechanical Silver Lady. The comic format allows Padua to communicate the impressive range and accomplishments of Lovelace’s and Babbage’s social circle in a glance. And the comic is just plain fun, like when Ada rejuvenates a crashed analytical engine with a swift kick of her boot-clad foot to a crankshaft: she “re-boots” it! With her graphic novel, Padua posits Lovelace and Babbage as a team. Sometimes Ada is front and center, sometimes Charles, and sometimes they’re together. Emphasizing Ada enables Padua to showcase her range of accomplishments, but also to call attention to 19th-century cultural expectations for women, and to emphasize what has (or has not) changed in nearly 200 years. When Padua turns our attention to Babbage, we see the quirks of his personality, as well as the political engines of Victorian England and the British Empire, spheres traditionally understood as more masculine. Thus, in a chapter in which Marian (or Mary Ann) Evans—better known as George Eliot—visits Lovelace and Babbage’s “brave new world of modern technology” (150), Padua takes us from a page (156) on which 19th century novelists, including Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Thomas Carlyle, line up for spell check to an explanation of Babbage’s notation for the analytical engine (177).
I love Padua’s novel because she emphasizes the contributions and complexities of the 19th century women who enriched and expanded our knowledge of the natural world. Ada was the daughter of Anne Isabella Milbanke, a mathematician described as “the Princess of Parallelograms.” She was the student of Mary Somerville, an accomplished natural philosopher (or scientist) and mathematician, after whom the first women’s college at Oxford University was named. Lovelace’s social circle included Caroline Herschel, who was celebrated for her intellect by the mathematician and scholar Pierre-Simon Laplace. And Lovelace, a brilliant mathematician, published an impressive and unprecedented work of abstraction, logic, and computation – in 1843. As Padua eloquently explains, “[Hers] was a truly extraordinary leap of imagination – it is difficult, maybe, for us in our computerized age to grasp how extraordinary” (27).
With her “Pocket Universe,” Padua effectively juxtaposes 19th century English cultural norms, especially around gender, with contemporary ones in order to highlight the flaws with both. As Padua notes, everyone seems obsessed with whether Ada had extramarital affairs, but no one seems to ask that about her husband (38). Similarly, when she is analyzing some correspondence between Ada and Charles, Padua uses the opportunity to explain that “[b]efore the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, every penny a married woman [like Ada] had or earned was the property of her husband (as, essentially, she was herself)” (133). In that section, Padua then demonstrates the depth of her historical sleuthing by quoting from a letter in which Babbage dishes all sorts of gossip—a letter that Padua herself found and that is reproduced in one of the appendices.
I love The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage most of all because reading them mirrors the process of crafting history: the factual details of history can always be assembled in myriad ways to create multifarious interpretations. With her “Pocket Universe,” Padua goes beyond traditional biographies or academic monographs, to elaborate on the gray spaces of history, the in-betweens, the may-have-beens, to speculate on a more gender-equitable past and future. One can simply read Padua’s comics, which are a visually pleasing wonder to behold. There’s one story. Or one can absorb the rich footnotes at the bottom of each page, adding another layer of depth and detail. The mesmerizing – and highly entertaining! – endnotes and appendices beckon still, offering miniature histories unto themselves, as well as the newspaper articles and cartoons, letters, memoirs, and other primary sources from Ada’s era that Padua consulted to produce her excellent history. The order in which these are read doesn’t really matter. I sometimes found myself following one page from comic to footnote to endnote to appendix and even online, emerging many minutes later at a very different place from where I began. The many threads that can be followed when reading Ada’s Adventures reminds me of the non-linear nature of investigating - and writing—the past. By combining her comic narrative with the academic techniques of footnotes and endnotes, Padua demonstrates that there is not just one history of Lovelace and Babbage; rather, multiple histories are happening at once.
Padua is refreshingly upfront about the challenges of interpreting the past. She shows her work, her thinking, and her analysis. After she quotes one of Lovelace’s letters, in which Lovelace discusses her health and mentions “Erasmus Wilson’s medicines,” Padua reflects: “Well, maybe I’m reading too much into it…Erasmus Wilson was an actual doctor of the period, after all. The word ‘livelihood’ [in Lovelace’s letter] makes me wonder if Ada’s schemes [betting on horses] were an attempt to establish a secret cash flow for herself” (133)? Padua does not offer a definitive argument, but I rather appreciated her “thinking out loud” here and elsewhere.
On the one hand, Padua’s novel could be read as a feminist fiction because Ada is the heroine; Babbage often just seems like the sidekick. Feminist, too, because it calls attention to the women in Ada’s life, as well as to the dramatically different treatment of women and men – then and now – as actors and historical subjects. On the other hand, we could say that Padua’s novel is just good history. It offers a rich and complicated picture of what was, what might have been, and what might be.
Image credit: Plan diagram of the Analytical Engine from 1840 (cropped and resized) (Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 4.0)