The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua (Pantheon; also available at sydneypadua.com) asks the question: what would the world be like if mathematician Ada Lovelace and inventor Charles Babbage had succeeded in creating the first Victorian computer? The answer is that they would use it to fight crime, of course.
Explored in a steampunk pocket universe, Lovelace and Babbage invent the first spellchecker, avert a revolution of mathematicians, and mingle with our favourite Victorian figures such as George Eliot, George Boole, and Queen Victoria herself. Told through exciting comic panels, contemporary sources, and wry footnotes, Padua explains the historical and social contexts of the duo’s mathematical discoveries, in a way that makes the development of the analogue computer entertaining and accessible.
Even a Victorian enthusiast like myself learned new things about the era’s culture and science, and Padua’s clear passion for the grumpy Babbage and his grand ideas made the book a pleasure to read. I especially enjoyed the literary references sprinkled throughout the comic: in one scene, poetry-hating Lovelace is the infamous Person from Porlock who interrupts Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s composition of Kubla Khan; in another section, the Analytical Engine is drawn as Wonderland, and Lovelace is the Alice who must make sense of it all.
The Thrilling Adventures is, above all, a humorous reimagining of two characters formulating a technology that changes the world. I loved the peek into a universe where the computer reigned a hundred years early, and wish the magic of the functional Analytical Engine could bleed a little more into our own reality.
This review first appeared in Geist 103.