We are right now living in an Ada Lovelace renaissance. A decade ago, Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, was most frequently invoked as an answer to a medium-difficulty trivia question, but today she’s in the process of becoming a totemic figurehead for an entire field, something along the lines of a Thomas Edison or a Wright Brothers for computing.
After a century and a half as a minor eccentric in British history, Lovelace’s legend has spread quickly; just as an example, my hometown of Seattle has seen the launch of an excellent science-minded bookshop, Ada’s Technical Books and Cafe, and an unrelated woman-only intensive programmers course, Ada Developers Academy, in the last few years, both named after Lovelace. Within a decade, it’s likely that Lovelace’s fame could surpass that of her father, the poet Lord Byron.
What sparked Lovelace’s rebirth? The two major contributors were writer Suw Charman-Anderson’s Ada Lovelace Day, an annual “international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths” founded in 2009, and a Google Doodle in December of 2012 that practically turned Lovelace into a household word overnight.
Animator Sydney Padua — her credits include hand-drawn classics like “The Iron Giant” and CGI puppetry in films like “The Golden Compass” — didn’t really have any idea who Lovelace was when Charman-Anderson recruited her over drinks to celebrate the first Ada Lovelace Day. In a recent Skype interview, Padua says she looked Lovelace’s story up on Wikipedia and thought, “Wow, that would make a really cute comic.” The more Padua read about her, the more she fell in love.
Lovelace is popularly celebrated as the inventor of the computer — which, Padua notes, is exactly wrong. The truth behind the history is, as always, a lot more complex. Lovelace’s friend and associate Charles Babbage invented a computing device called a “Difference Engine” in the 1830s, although he later expanded on that concept with a larger, more ambitious analog computer called an “Analytic Engine.”
Babbage, in fact, never physically built either Engine, instead drafting and redrafting its theoretical construction on paper. But Lovelace instantly understood the importance of Babbage’s creation, and she was so inspired by the Engine that she wrote the first work of computer science scholarship, complete with the earliest complex computer program ever recorded. Padua explains that Babbage, essentially, provided the hardware and Lovelace perfected the software.
Padua drew a biographical comic about Lovelace and Babbage, but “the end of the story of Ada Lovelace is that she dies and there’s no computer,” Padua says, and she thought that would be a “stupid” ending for a strip.
So, “just as a joke and to kind of wrap it up,” she drew a panel of the pair dressed in steampunk outfits wielding sci-fi weaponry with a caption promising that they would live to complete the Analytical Engine, and use it “to FIGHT CRIME and HAVE ADVENTURES!”
The strip took off on social media, and people around the world interpreted Padua’s jokey ending as the promise of a new series of Lovelace/Babbage adventures. “I succumb very easily to peer pressure,” Padua says. “I’d done my little song and dance and everyone clapped, and so I figured I’d better keep dancing.” She did so for five years, posting strips to her blog, compiling them into an app for iOS, and finally publishing them today in a beautiful new 300-page graphic novel titled, “The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer.”
“Lovelace and Babbage” takes place in an alternate universe in which Lovelace (who described herself in a letter as “the High-Priestess of Babbage’s Engine”) did not die of cancer at 36. Instead, she and Babbage press ever-larger versions of the Analytic Engine to work resolving England’s biggest problems in the mid-1800s: Egomaniacal monarchs, a turbulent economy, angry Luddites and rampant grammatical errors in works of fiction.
Every page is a joy to behold: Padua is a first-rate cartoonist, and her Muppet-mouthed Babbage and hyperconfident Lovelace are delightfully expressive protagonists who propel the reader around the story with ease. “When you’re animating,” Padua explains, “you draw your awesome pose, and then you have to draw all the tedious 50, 150, 250 figures around it to get to the awesome pose. Whereas in comics, you draw the awesome pose and you’re done! You move on to the next awesome pose.”
Nearly every page of Lovelace and Babbage features a pairing of comics and typeset footnotes explaining references in the comics. Though the story is set in a fictional world, a surprising amount of the book is built upon Padua’s extensive research, with much of the dialogue extracted directly from real-life letters and other miscellaneous writings. Covering a third of every comics page in text is a risky move; asking readers to switch back and forth between comics and prose could easily violate their suspension of disbelief.
But in “Lovelace and Babbage,” it works perfectly. The footnotes effectively transform Padua into a character in the story, and her ever-growing enthusiasm for her subjects is infectious. The footnotes, miraculously, become a part of the narrative, even as they’re occasionally sucked into the comic to become part of a visual gag, as when Queen Victoria orders Padua to stop midway through a lengthy explanation of why Babbage huffily refused a knighthood. The effect is not unlike a David Foster Wallace essay — your eye volleys back and forth between the text and its annotation in a delirious dance, until the page blurs into a single idiosyncratic narrative.
Padua’s skill as a cartoonist increases as the book goes on. Some early pages suffer from lack of backgrounds, for instance — a common time-saving technique for beginning cartoonists — and a couple jokes feel rushed. But by the middle of the book, Padua is using complex layouts to explain difficult computer science concepts. One page is laid out in the form of a flow chart, another requires the reader to turn the book in circles to follow the plot. By the time Padua makes what is probably the funniest Boolean operation joke ever to be told in two and a half pages, the form and the function of the storytelling are intertwined perfectly.
The final chapter of “Lovelace and Babbage” is a riff on “Alice in Wonderland” (Padua identifies Martin Gardner’s “The Annotated Alice” as her favorite childhood book) pitting Lovelace against her truthers — a small but vocal subset of the already tiny field of Lovelace scholarship that believe Lovelace was a fraud. Conspiracy theorists argue that Lovelace was unhinged, and that Babbage merely placated her.
When she first learned about the controversy, Padua says, her first reaction was, “’Oh my God, I can’t do this comic,’ because what could possibly be worse than when your patron saint of computing turns out to be a fake geek girl?” But the more she read of their correspondence, the more confident she became that Babbage, a notorious fussbucket, could never tolerate a phony. Babbage, she says, “was literally incapable of being insincere. The idea of him trusting his baby to someone he didn’t respect? I just can’t imagine it.”
These two painfully brilliant minds — scorned and misunderstood by so many — were better together than they were apart. Early in “Lovelace and Babbage,” Ada and Charles meet at a party, and quickly become lost in conversation over the Difference Engine’s many possibilities. Two onlookers stare at the pair’s unselfconscious love of nascent computer science and one of them notes in a postmodern flourish, “We’re present for the invention of the geek!”
Which came first — the computer or the computer geek, the hardware or the software, the madness or the brilliance? Who cares? Maybe it’s wiser to ask if one could even exist without the other.
Paul Constant has written about books, politics, nerd culture and film for The Progressive, Newsweek, The Utne Reader and alternative weeklies all over North America. Formerly the book review editor at The Seattle Stranger, he now works at Civic Ventures, a political strategy firm. Reach him @paulconstant.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.