Normally when I use the phrase “comic-book history” here on the Margins I’m referring to the shorthand popular version of history that we learned as children and carry in our hearts as adults: Abraham Lincoln dashing off the Gettysburg address on the back of an envelope, the first American Thanksgiving, Marie Antoinette’s infamous line “let them eat cake–like that. These historical anecdotes are at best incomplete versions of history and at worst absolutely wrong, but they are emotionally satisfying so they live on no matter how often they are debunked.*
Today, though, I’m going to talk about a real comic book, described by its author as “an imaginary comic about an imaginary computer.”: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer.
Sydney Padua starts out with two real people:
Augusta Ada King (1815-1852) , the Countess of Lovelace, better known as Ada Lovelace. Daughter of the famous (and infamous) Lord Byron, Lovelace was a talented mathematician. Most women with that skill in her time would have had no opportunity to use it. Lucky for her, her mother insisted that she be educated in a rigorous program of math and science well outside the norm for young women of the time, hoping such study would counteract any poetical tendencies she might have inherited from her father. ** (In case you’re not up on nineteenth century gossip, it was a spectacularly unhappy marriage.)
Charles Babbage (1791-1857) was an irascible and inventive mathematician and tinkerer who is often called the “father of the computer”. He designed two machines intended to automate complex calculations: the difference machine and the later, more complicated analytical engine.
Lovelace was fascinated by his work. When asked to translate an Italian engineer’s article on the analytical machine into English, she added her own notes to the piece*** in which she described how code could be written that would expand the use of the machine. Making her the first computer programmer. At least in theory.
Padua tells the history of Lovelace and Babbage in twenty-five smart, snarky, footnoted pages–then revolts against the fact that history gives her characters unhappy endings.**** The rest of the smart, snarky, footnoted comic takes place in an alternative steampunk universe where Lovelace and Babbage “live to complete the analytical engine and use it to have thrilling adventures and fight crime.” Padua takes elements of nineteenth century history (Luddites, for example) and historical personages (Queen Victoria among them) and twists them into unhistorical forms that are nonetheless historically illuminating. It’s quite a trick and makes me think of Marianne Moore’s definition of poetry as the ability to create “real toads in imaginary gardens”.
*My apologies to those of you who have heard this rant before, either here or In Real Life.
**This seems to have been based on a fundamental lack of understanding of the poetical properties inherent in higher mathematics and the amount of imagination required to make scientific leaps.
***Three times the length of the original article.
****Lovelace had a drug habit, tried (unsuccessfully) to use her mathematical skills to build a gambling system, and died young of uterine cancer. Babbage, being irascible, was in constant fights with just about everyone and never built his analytical engine. In part because he was in constant fights with just about everyone.