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The thrilling adventures of Lovelace and Babbage : the (mostly) true story of the first computer
Padua S., Pantheon Books, 2015. 320 pp. Type: Book (978-0-307908-27-8)
Date Reviewed: Dec 1 2015

Every field has its heroes. The comics are an ideal medium to present these heroes and their tales. Sydney Padua has taken two of the mythological heroes of computing and placed them in a wonderfully imagined and drawn “pocket universe” where their semi-historical adventures play out.

Like Alice down the rabbit hole, Lovelace and Babbage encounter fantastical creatures like Queen Victoria, Wellington, Brunel, and Marian Evans. As behooves superheroes like Batman, the adventures are largely driven by the heroes’ inventions, but instead of the batmobile or batarang, Lovelace and Babbage have the difference engine and the analytic engine.

At first glance, this graphic novel might be dismissed as a mere bagatelle, but a closer look reveals so much more. Let’s start with the drawings. While they are meant to be jokey, they are to a large extent technically accurate. In an amazing appendix, the full technical workings of the analytic engine (the first programmable digital computer, which was proposed by Babbage but never built) are laid out in detail.

While the stories are fiction, they are based on real historical figures. As one might hope, the author includes footnotes and endnotes to describe the real people. One might expect the author to cite various histories and biographies as the sources for these notes, but she has gone one better: she has looked at and cites primary historical documents rather than secondary sources.

And here’s the real news: she didn’t have to traipse around the world to do so. She found the documents by using Google Books, the ambitious project to scan the contents of, at least, the world’s great libraries. With this resource at her fingertips, and some clever navigating on her part, she was able to find scanned copies of original letters of Lovelace and Babbage. As a result, she can even call into question Lovelace’s appellation as “Queen of Numbers” and point out that the original seems to be “Queen of Number.”

I highly recommend this book, and suggest it as supplemental reading for CS 101. As our view of Sherlock Holmes is largely conditioned by the illustrations of Sidney Paget, the illustrations of Sydney Padua will color and animate our image of Lovelace and Babbage as heroes of computing.

More reviews about this item: Amazon, Goodreads

Reviewer:  Paul Cull Review #: CR143984 (1602-0110)
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