The author of new graphic novel “The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage” gives us an illustrated look at computer visionary Ada Lovelace.
Lovelace was just a teenager when she met Babbage at a demonstration of a model of his Difference Engine. She would later translate a description of Babbage’s plans for his mechanical calculating machine, adding copious annotations including the first appearance of the general computing theory, 100 years before an actual computer was built.
The meeting of their brilliant minds didn’t lead to any breakthroughs during their lifetime: Lovelace died of cancer a decade after publishing her paper, and Babbage never built any of his machines. But in Padua’s historical fantasy, which releases today, many thrilling adventures await…
Here are a heptad of facts that the author discovered about the Victorian computer visionary while researching her must-read book.
1. Her parents didn’t want her to follow in her father’s poetic footsteps.
Ada never knew her famous father — her parents separated when she was just a baby and Lord Byron left England, never to return. Her mother was afraid she would develop the “poetic” temperament of Byron and raised her on a program of mathematics, logic, and strict discipline. I was surprised to find that Byron himself shared his wife’s worries. He once said, “I am told she is clever — I hope not! But above all, I hope she is not poetical; the price paid for such advantages, if advantages they be, is such as to make me pray that my child may escape them.” I think ‘poetical’ is referring to the supposed connection between creative genius and madness — Byron had famously erratic moods, that some now recognize as bipolar disorder.
2. She was described as “The most coarse and vulgar woman in England. . .”
Lady Byron was successful at turning her daughter into a mathematician, but totally failed to make her into a proper Victorian lady. In spite of her mother’s efforts, Ada had her father’s volatile, subversive nature and enjoyed shocking her stuffy society. I think my favourite weird archive find was a single line of gossip from an 1835 edition of the New York Mirror (Ada would have been 20): “It is said that Ada Byron, sole daughter of the ‘noble bard’, is the most coarse and vulgar woman in England!” Even her good friend Babbage was said to have described her as having “a good deal of the Byron devil”!
3. She had a meeting of the minds with Charles Babbage.
Ada met the great inventor Charles Babbage when she was 18 and he was 42, at a demonstration of a model of his calculating machine, the Difference Engine. Another watcher reported: “While other visitors gazed at the workings of the beautiful instrument with the sort of expression, and I dare say the sort of feeling, that some savages are said to have shown on first seeing a looking-glass or hearing a gun — Miss Byron, young as she was, understood its working, and saw the great beauty of the invention.” Ada was never content until she understood things completely—she immediately asked to borrow the plans!
4. She was a female math genius in a man’s world.
One of her mathematics teachers was Augustus de Morgan, an important guy in the early development of symbolic logic. He taught her his mathematics course at the University of London by correspondence — as a woman of course she could not attend herself! Although he thought she had the potential to be “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence,” he thought that she should not be encouraged to pursue her studies. He was very worried that she would injure herself, as her woman’s body wouldn’t be able to cope with her over-powered brain—really! “Lady L. has unquestionably as much power [of mathematical thought] as would require all the strength of a man’s constitution to bear,” he wrote to her mother, and if she kept studying much further, “the struggle between mind and body will begin.”
5. She was more geek not-so-chic than fashion-forward.
At least one geek stereotype was true of Ada — she was a terrible dresser! A disapproving housekeeper described her to a visitor as “not so well dressed as her maid.” She was also a bit socially awkward — after what must have been a pretty boring conversation about math, one woman declared, “Babbage and not Byron should have been her father!”
6. Her famous friends included Charles Dickens and Florence Nightingale.
Ada died at 36, the same age as her father. Her terrible battle with cancer lasted over a year of agony. Her friend Charles Dickens read to her on her deathbed. Florence Nightingale, another old friend of Ada’s, wrote: “They said she could not possibly have lived so long, were it not for the tremendous vitality of the brain, that would not die.”
7. Her children were restless spirits too.
Ada’s three children all inherited her restless spirit, and had unusual lives. Her oldest son Byron, heir to the Lovelace earldom, ran away shortly after her death when he was 16. He was only found over 10 years later, dead of tuberculosis after working as a ship’s carpenter. Her second son Ralph was an ardent mountain climber and Icelandic explorer. Her only daughter Anne grew up demure and sheltered as a Victorian lady should — but at 30 she married a poet and set off on a life of adventure. She was the first western woman to cross the Arabian desert, and became a legendary breeder of horses — the stallions she brought back with her are the ancestors of 95% of Arabians in Europe today. A memoir by her sister-in law-has an amazing description of her as a “remarkable long-distance runner” whose proudest achievement was sticking on a famous bucking horse. Anne definitely needs her own comic book!
Sydney Padua is a graphic artist and animator. Her visual effects work includes both hand-drawn and computer-generated and appears in such films as The Iron Giant, Clash of the Titans, and John Carter. The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage has been featured on the BBC’s Techlab, and in The Economist, The Times,and Wired UK. She is a Canadian living in London.