Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer

Something I can reveal about this book, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer, is that the stories in here are for the most part not real but they are constructed from some excellent research, facts, and historical events. It follows the exploits of an unusual duo, countess/mathematician Ada Lovelace and mathematician/grump Charles Babbage. In reality, these two met and had a great friendship/collaboration that resulted in the invention of two machines, a difference engine and an analytical engine, precursors to what we now recognize as computers. But, neither machine was actually fully built in either of their lifetimes. What is more, Lovelace died pretty young, so their collaboration was rather short-lived.
From those bits of reality, this book follows a narrative into a pocket universe where Lovelace and Babbage's lives played out differently: they both live longer lives, build their machines, and use them for various adventures. Along the way they meet major figures of the day, including Queen Victoria, the Duke of Wellington, and author George Eliot. These episodes are full of wit, humor, and well explained footnotes. The artwork is very expressive and vital, and the entire enterprise bursts with personality and energy. This is probably one of the geekiest books I have ever read, and I rather enjoyed it. I don't know if this quite a book for every reader, but it would certainly be a hit for those who like Victorian era antics, computer science, and/or sophisticated humor.

Sydney Padua is an animator and illustrator who began working on this project as a webcomic, just for kicks. It clearly has grown into something much larger, a bonafide graphic novel. She speaks about her work on this webcomic and book in this interview.

This work has received two Eisner nominations, so it was no surprise that all of the reviews I have read about it have been very positive. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and made it a special selection, summing up, "Permeated by delightful illustrations, obsessive foot- and endnotes, and a spirit of genuine inventiveness, it’s an early candidate for the year’s best." Maria Popova called it "layered and wonderful in its totality." Dr. James Sumner wrote a more academic review, and he remarked that "Padua’s work is, in fact, rather better researched than certain more solemn texts on Lovelace and Babbage."

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage was published by Pantheon Books, and they have more info about it here.

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